By leaps and bounds the most common question I get from my clients in leadership these days is, “It really seems like there is something going on with generational differences beyond the usual misunderstandings and “kids these days” frustrations that arise in every generation…am I over-reacting here or is this true?”

When I first started fielding versions of this question I was wary about proclaiming that yes indeed there is something unique and new about our current generational divides. After all, my job is addressing how difficult it is for organizations to handle and communicate through the challenges that arise when any humans attempt to be productive together. Yet as time went on, it became impossible for me not to acknowledge that yes, something new is in the water these days. I am not an official data collector, but I talk to a lot of people in a lot of organizations across multiple industries. And from that deep experience I can absolutely tell you that people are finding it challenging in new ways to engage, motivate and hold folks accountable at the more junior levels of their companies. 

Obviously I’m not alone in being willing to come out and state this definitively. Google anything about Gen Z in the workplace and you will find plenty of people identifying this shift, often with research to back them up. From what I have observed, the two most common areas of frustration are 1) getting junior folks to be as present, committed and skilled as is necessary for them to be effective in their roles 2) communicating and implementing work from office/home policies. I’m not going to directly address number two because that issue is its own novella, but much of what’s needed to address the first point will also help with the second. 

Senior leaders tend to articulate their frustrations about more junior folks along these lines: “they care more about being able to get to yoga class than meeting critical deadlines”, “they don’t seem to understand that we are paying them (very well!) to be available which obviously includes some nights and weekends”, “I’ve told them how to do it but they just don’t seem to care about doing it well”, “they want to be promoted and doing more interesting work before they’ve even begun to master the work required at their current level!” 

While these things of course vary individual to individual, it is largely true that there are some fundamental shifts in the way many young people think about work that we must acknowledge. Typically when I bring this up to a group of leaders, what usually ensues is a long conversation about everyone’s theories on why this is true. These generally include: a variety of pandemic related issues, growing up with iphones, social media, helicopter parenting, wanting to find some pleasure and meaning in a world that seems to be falling apart around them. While this conversation is absolutely interesting, my concern is that the “why are they like this?” conversation is what’s occupying most leaders’ time and it doesn’t seem to get us very far in the direction of bridging the gap. 

And so how do we begin to bridge this gap? The number one thing I recommend is that leaders spend less time talking to each other about this and more time talking to their juniors about it. These conversations can be teaching conversations, learning conversations, mentoring/coaching conversations, feedback conversations – all the kinds of conversations that help us both share what we know and understand our people so that we can better motivate and lead them. 

Frustrations with the issues mentioned above are entirely valid but they can’t keep us from trying to better understand the individuals that work for and with us. It has always been true that leaders need to be mindful that what motivates and interests others is different than what motivates and interests us. We, the leaders, the people in charge, need to approach this with curiosity rather than judgment. We need to find out how the young individuals on our teams are thinking so that we can help them adapt to our working world in a way that serves both of us. 

Every communication or negotiation course you ever take will tell you that you have to make space to hear the other person’s perspective. That people are more likely to listen to us and shift their thinking in our direction if they also feel heard and respected. You might give them a win in exchange for a win that matters to you. This is what we need to do to begin addressing these generational divides. We need to get in there. 

I get in there with juniors because it’s my job to do so. Importantly, I see many young people who are as hungry and driven and willing to work long hours as ever. But I also see a shift. I see the boundaries younger folks want to hold for their personal time. I see them skeptical of a culture of hierarchy and grind and status. I see them less clear on why some of the demands being put on them are necessary. AND: I see them open and willing to learn and better understand the requirements of their roles and the expectations set for them. What many are looking for is more understanding about the “why” things are being asked of them. They want more information. They are not motivated to do things without knowing for what purpose. I know this extra desire for information is frustrating to some leaders, but more transparency has long been a demand in the workplace. It generally serves us well to have more shared information among our people and it helps us take control of the internal stories being told. It’s important to remember that just because something wasn’t important to us or done for us, does not mean that it is not meaningful, important and worth doing for someone else. There are ways to meet in the middle. As with most issues we face, we are so often a few challenging and rich conversations away from better understanding and better solutions.