Engaging Generation Z

By Josh Frahm posted 11-12-2019 07:59


Self-disclosure: I am a borderline Millennial, born in 1982, but consider myself more of what you hear from students from time to time—an old soul. I always get a kick out of it when a student says that to me, but I hear it more often than you’d think. What they really mean is they relate better to other generations and that’s our discussion for today.

To be able to lead Gen Z effectively, you must understand the cultural, technological, and social changes they have experienced that might cause a communication disconnect with older generations. We will tackle what motivates Gen Z and discuss communication and workplace strategies to effectively lead them. Bottom line is, we have more in common than we think!

Why is Supervising Today Difficult?

People today are working longer. They start earlier and retire later. Because of this trend we currently have five generations in the workplace with a wider age range than we have ever seen. Each generation has grown up and entered the work force under different circumstances and this inevitably causes friction. With Gen Z having increased numbers in the workplace, the challenge of navigating new technology and different work patterns can cause any supervisor issues. In my mind, the biggest obstacle we face is that each generation has a different view of how work fits into their lives. The definition of professionalism in the workplace has also changed.

What has caused these obstacles? To understand each generation, you must look at the five factors that impacted how they entered the work force: 

Economic FactorsGeneration Z grew up during a period of economic downturn in comparison to their Millennial peers who grew up during prosperity. This has impacted how our current generation views money.

Political HappeningsThink about the political unrest of today and throughout history. Think back to how you might have been impacted by what is happening within the government.

Social ChangeHello 60s! The social environment can affect what we care about and how we approach and value work.

Technological AdvancesGeneration Z has never been without the Internet. Think about that. When we wonder why this generation is always on their phones, it’s because they have never been without one.

Landmark Events—9/11 impacted all of us, but how it impacted parents and how they think of safety for their children has affected the lives of this generation. 

Every circumstance we go through impacts us. and what we see in the workplace today is a Gen Z group that is a product of the five key factors from their adolescence. The difference in our generations?—We see the world differently. 

Recent Generation Change—Millennials to Generation Z

As a teacher and supervisor who began with Millennials and has transitioned to Gen Z students, I notice some big differences in the two groups. Below is a general comparison of how the groups differ. The better you understand each generation, the better you can lead.

Differences between Millennials and Generation Z

If you haven’t thought about each generation before and assumed everyone is still Millennials (which I hear often), look at this comparison and think back to the last three to five years. Have you noticed changes in students? For me, the answer is absolutely yes, even if the changes are subtle. 

We Have Much in Common!

This is as much a societal issue as a generation one, but why do we always focus so much on our differences when we have so many similarities? Consider when you started your career…

  • Were you ambitious?
  • Did you hope to move up the ladder quickly?
  • Did you seek feedback from your peers or supervisors? 

My guess is the answer to all those questions is yes. Stereotypes label us a certain way, but research tells us we value the same things.

Here are some examples:

  • Desire for Fairness—Everyone wants to feel involved and informed at their job and we all want to be respected.
  • Need to be Stretched—Like organizations, people want to grow, and Gen Z is no different. The common complaint Gen Z has about their job is that they stop learning or lose opportunities to learn.
  • Yearning for Community—Each of us wants to contribute to something greater than ourselves. We want that sense of belonging and to feel like we matter. Gen Z highly values this in the workplace.

My challenge is to think about similarities students have with you instead of the differences. Knowing that our potential miscommunication comes from gaps in how we view the workplace, how can we be better supervise and motivate for higher performance? 

Generation Z—Communication Strategies:

What does Gen Z want from you? Well, lots of things as they have high expectations, but here are the basics:

  • Flexibility—e.g., work hours, tasks, work places
  • Autonomy with a mentor
  • Equality—they want to make a difference, so involve them
  • Allow them to be creative and develop ideas
  • Have frequent check-ins 

What I’ve found most intriguing about Gen Z is that they are much more receptive to feedback compared to their Millennial peers. Frequent check-ins and helping them understand how they are doing can keep them motivated. Allow the opportunity to use their strengths and let them be creative. They may not do things exactly how you would,  but focus more on the results than the means.

When it comes to work hours, Gen Z is about a work-life blend compared to the work-life balance we are used to hearing. Flexibility is crucial, and they want to be able to access work wherever and whenever.

Finally, whether you sign up for this or not, you have become their mentor. They look up to you as a supervisor and will come to you for guidance and reassurance. Four years ago at the University of Iowa, I thought it would be great to have a Supervisor of the Year award to go along with our Student Employee of the Year award. I came up with four categories and students had to write how each supervisor showcased greatness in each category. I figured I would get maybe five to seven nominations and it would be a cool thing….two weeks later, I had 91 nominations! One supervisor was nominated 13 times, another had a student write seven pages about them. Bottom line, you matter and are a key cog in their development.

Communication strategies

  • Keep written communication brief (Think Twitter).
  • Use digital devices as much as possible.
  • Leverage social media—let them be creative with tasks.

The most surprising thing about Gen Z is their most preferred method of communication at work is in-person meetings. Think about these communication strategies and if they are feasible within your department. How can you begin implementing them? 

Managing Expectations

I have two solution-based strategies for you to help lead Generation Z:

Mindset-Focused Solutions:

  • Avoid confusing character problems like immaturity or laziness with generational traits
  • Refrain from stereotyping others and stay open-minded
  • Focus on results (i.e., what workers produces versus how they get it done)
  • Is the issue situational or generational?

HR/Training Focused Solutions:

  • Create a positive HR structure and a good management environment
    • Conduct regular check-ins and reviews
    • Adapt your training program to this generation
  • Create clear strategic and operational plans for each position on your staff
  • Determine and communicate how individual workers’ production contributes to overall department objectives

Gen Z needs to know the “why” for everything. They want to be a part of something bigger, so even in a minor role, provide them the ultimate organization vision and how they play a part.

Final Thoughts

I have found Gen Z to be a joy to work with. While the group present some challenges, I find the fact that they want to make the world around them better inspiring. It’s never going to be peaches and cream, but our supervisors probably said the same thing about us when we were 20! Keep an open-mind and view this group of workers with an eye towards our similarities, not our differences. 

Don't miss the next blog: Leading Students to High Performance