Managing Gen Z in the Workplace

The key takeaway for me was "Gen Z is unique in growing up with a culture of safety where overprotective parenting inadvertently took away their opportunity to learn life skills."

Managing Gen Z in the Workplace

Finding effective ways to integrate and motivate subordinates into the team was a problem I consistently encountered in the Army. At times, my peers and I struggled to welcome new Soldiers to the team in an efficient way. Guidance from superiors briefed well, but was hard to implement. Developing a meaningful managerial relationship with an 18-20 year old Soldier on their first day (or even within their first week) can present a myriad of challenges. I believe this holds true across the generational gap, and Generation Z is no different. At the heart of it all is trying to define the cause of these difficulties.

Over the past year and a half, friends and business associates have told me about the challenges they face with new hires in the workplace. Today's culture and prevailing work ethic make it difficult for Gen X and older Millennial managers to even find qualified talent to fill a position. Managers in the business world face the same challenges I did in the Army once the talent is hired. A close friend of mine describes young employees (20-27) as "selfish, defensive, and childlike." He finds it frustrating that the younger generation doesn't share the same work ethic or values that he is accustomed to in the workplace. It is extremely challenging to get younger employees to understand why they are being asked to carry themselves and perform tasks a certain way.

I had been thinking about this problem for about six months, when I came across an article from the California Management Review aptly titled "Are You Ready for Gen Z in the Workplace?," written by Holly Schroth of the University of California, Berkley. To my surprise, this well researched and referenced document provides an in-depth exploration of best practices when it comes to integrating Gen Z with your team.

The key takeaway for me was "Gen Z is unique in growing up with a culture of safety where overprotective parenting inadvertently took away their opportunity to learn life skills."

It seems managers are now expected to teach young employees how to be adults because their parents have sheltered them for too long.

After a week of careful contemplation, I have concluded this statement accurately defines the problems managers face in understanding young employees and how they function within the work space. Gen Z wants to perform and be successful, but they are afraid to ask their superiors how to get there. They are afraid of failure, and don't know how to overcome those fears. They are active on social media, but tend to be awkward in physical social interactions. Gen Z doesn't know how to react to difficult situations, so they become defensive and emotional.

Schroth provides a number of solutions to these problems. I found it intriguing that many of her solutions fall directly in line, and in many cases mirror the personnel on-boarding and integration processes used in the Army. Managing expectations, teaching, coaching, and mentorship are some of the tools needed to successfully integrate Generation Z with your organization.

Managing expectations means clearly defining the new hire's role and scope within the organization. This includes what Schroth calls "The Psychological Contract," where managers explicitly define traditionally unwritten expectations about the manager/employee relationship. She notes "... it is important to talk to each new employee to understand that person’s expectations about the work relationship and to manage these expectations."

Once the groundwork is laid out, it's time to start on-the-job-training (OJT). This is where patience pays off. We often forget that we were the starry-eyed newbie, clueless about implied tasks and effective communications at one point in our careers. Invest the time and energy required to teach young hires how to answer the phone, respond to e-mails, and talk to clients. Generation Z tends to prefer video over in-person instruction. Why not have your best sales rep, customer service rep, and administrative assistant make videos for new hires to watch?

Coaching is just as important as OJT.

Plot out successfull progression steps to a task, or project if possible. Talk your young hire through the process along the way, making every effort to have meaningful discussion. By meaningful, I refer to active listening techniques, where you listen to what someone has to say and give careful, deliberate response. This is how you find out how they process information and make decisions. This is also your chance to show them the best practices you've refined over the years. Sharing your experience breeds efficiency and strengthens the team.

Mistakes will happen. The best part about mistakes is they present another learning opportunity. Talk about what led to the mistake and how similar mistakes can best be avoided in the future. Schroth cautions managers to "remember to praise for effort and initiative and not just results." While it may have been perfectly acceptable for a manager to scold a young hire, and scare them into getting results back in 1997, that attitude typically leads to high turnover rates, and staffing troubles these days.

Society has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, and management needs to get in front of a myriad of challenges to be successful over the next 20 years. Learning how to best integrate younger generations into your team will be time well spent.