How To Engage Today’s Challenging Young People For Business Success

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

We often hear bad news about the youngest generation in the workplace. For example, one survey claims Gen Z is more difficult to work with than previous generations, and another survey has found that as many as 40% of business leaders see Gen Z college graduates as “unprepared for the workplace”—and therefore 94% of that group avoids hiring them. But luckily, there’s an alternate view. According to Dr. Sarah Adler, CEO and founder of Wave and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford, Gen Z members are “uniquely resilient” and, if you know how to work with them, they can bring many strengths to the workplace.

Gen Z is “the misery generation,” Adler notes in a recent conversation, because they’ve seen “a ton of trouble.” Given the pandemic and economic and social conditions, from social media to the epidemic of loneliness, Gen Z has earned its misery. But, as Adler explains, they are “also the first generation who has a taxonomy and a language for emotional health. They’re not fighting against the same kind of stigma in terms of talking about mental health and accessing mental health. They are able to ask for help and resources.” Gen Z’s resilience, self-awareness and willingness to seek what they need actually let organizations benefit from some of the same characteristics leaders often chafe at when managing Gen Z employees.

Don’t Hire Them If You Don’t Want To Handle Them

It’s always harder to deal with less acculturated employees, but this is particularly true for people “who care exponentially more about who you are and what you stand for than the millennials, the Boomers and the Gen Xers” do, says Adler. Gen Z candidates yearn for “very clear expectations and transparency around who we are as an organization,” she notes. “You need to be assessing for goodness of fit within the organization, and what resources we have as an organization to either shape or present the reality of the situation so they can potentially opt out.”

Ensure congruency between your organization’s culture and the information you present during the interview process. And if your managers don’t have the time, commitment or managerial skills to instill your corporate culture and working habits in new Gen Z hires, it may not make sense to hire them at all.

Create New Management Norms

“Most middle managers are not actually trained to be managers,” says Adler. “They’re trained to be right” and their “inability to manage or corral Gen Z is actually our deficit in training our managers in proper expectation setting and proper, consistent, repeatable, measurable processes.” Gen Z is much more vocal about what’s not working for them than previous generations have been, so if you haven’t assessed your own managerial strengths and weaknesses, you’re less likely to interact successfully with Gen Z employees and you may get a lot of turnover and pushback.

You can resolve this problem by training middle managers and instituting effective processes that structure employee experiences. For example, Adler says, does “every employee who comes in have a 30-/60-/90- [day plan]” to get new employees off on the right foot. Similarly, setting norms for “containment and structure and process” avoids the risk of managers trapping themselves into trying to personally support dysregulated Gen Zers.

A clear, consistent structure prevents managers from playing therapist, and keeps their emphasis on employees’ ability to accomplish work effectively rather than on trying to control employees’ feelings. Emotional overinvolvement often creates imbalance because it depends on how much a manager cares about any individual employee. When the focus is getting work done and what the employee needs in order to accomplish their goals, the whole normative structure can be applied more consistently and equally, whatever the needs of the employee.

Meet More Frequently And Consistently

Another useful leadership process is holding structured one-on-ones. True support for Gen Z employees ensures that they feel safe in their working conditions and know how to handle any problems—including personal ones—that arise in the course of delivering on their jobs: how to raise an issue, who to see, where to go. “They desperately want to connect,” says Adler. “They want to feel hopeful, they want to feel very invested. But if you don’t invest in giving them a space where you are giving them clear expectations, they may not be set up to go figure it out themselves.”

Adler’s one-on-ones with her staff all follow the same format, and she teaches her managers to use it with their own direct reports. “It is your job as the employee to surface what you’re doing, give me updates on it and ask me for help,” she explains. “I will give you the deadlines that I need, the expectations that I have, and an opportunity for you to ask contextual questions.”

Teach Useful Ways To Communicate

Millennial, Gen X and Boomer leaders and managers have different vocabulary and expectations than Gen Z leaders do, but Gen Z’s informal communication and discomfort with organizational hierarchy can be shaped. “They have this complete lack of understanding of corporate communication or what the rules of engagement are,” Adler says. “Their communication is not bound by typical hierarchical constraints, because digital messaging and text messaging and communication is the great informalizer. There’s a lack of power dynamic in the message itself that gets reinforced by the informality.”

It’s crucial to teach Gen Z when it’s necessary to shift from digital communication to the phone or even face-to-face. For example, many misunderstandings can happen on Slack. “What I teach my organization is the minute you sense that there’s a misunderstanding, jump in a huddle, bring it online,” says Adler. “And always be willing to jump on to a real time conversation.” Gen Z doesn’t “want to be in meetings, because meetings are inefficient and waste time,” she notes, but it’s necessary to create a culture in which it’s accepted that communication misunderstandings require follow-up conversations, whether face-to-face, video or phone. “That’s where you can get more nuanced, more inflection, more understanding—and you’re not relying on the shorthand of informal digital communication.”

Benefit From Their Questioning Stance

Another reason managers find Gen Z difficult to work with is that they ask too many questions, but you can use their interest in data and clarity to highlight organizational weaknesses. Adler suggests reframing a Gen Zer’s endless questions. “She is giving us the gift of the flaws in our communication and our thinking. She is pointing out the questions we are not answering for her and showing us the places where customers are going to be confused, VCs are going to be confused or other team members are going to be confused,” she says. “If the only way to communicate with Gen Z is to have your own very clear agenda and strategic plan, it forces you to do the work and the thinking to be able to explain the context that will benefit the organization.”

Adler welcomes deep questioning—and its potential challenges—in her own organization. “If I have not given clear context, people will not know how to connect with their jobs,” she explains. “They’ll just be going through the motions and that’s not what I want. I want a team that is aligned and invested to force me to do the thinking and the work and not just rely on my storytelling and communication skills. It forces me to be clear. It forces me to think through and be [self-]critical about my communication and my problem-solving.”

Use Skillful Feedback To Flip The Engagement Switch

Another benefit of hiring Gen Zers comes specifically from their youth. “They have intellectual curiosity and energy that I’d like to infuse into some of my more jaded colleagues,” Adler acknowledges. “And we can absolutely leverage that by treating them collaboratively. If we look to them as a mirror for our communication strategy and ask, ‘What do you think of this? What’s your feedback?’ If we can invest in incorporating them into the conversation and take a more collaborative approach which demonstrates respect despite their youth, it’s another source of feedback! Feedback is fabulous and we get energy from it.”

Adler always asks two questions in her one-on-one meetings: “What feedback do you have for me?” and “How can I help support you in a way that you haven’t been able to express today?” She explains: “I am constantly demonstrating that in order to have intellectual curiosity, you must be able to be wrong. I demonstrate my own errors constantly.” If managers make their expectations clear and their feedback is consistently functional, evidence-based and specifically about the work rather than seeming like an attack on the person, the feedback will be received as part of a systemic process of collaboration, which makes it easier to accept and act upon. She recommends giving an employee time to consider the feedback and then discussing it at the next meeting, using prompts like: “What can you learn from this? How can I support you to make it better? What didn’t I do to scaffold you or set you up for success?”

Invest the time to explain and model the behaviors you want to see from Gen Z employees. If you accept the reality of their concerns and needs while continuing to share your vision and values as they evolve, you can develop a segment of the workforce that will deliver creative solutions and develop fierce commitment to your organization.

Onward and upward—
LK

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