Gen Z are the future of the workforce and are a global majority.
An arbitrary search of ‘desired leadership behaviours’ would drum up advice on ‘walking the talk’ or ‘practice what you preach.’ An actual conversation with most leaders might suggest otherwise. This can be chalked to arrogance or ignorance, and it is difficult to say which is more troublesome. Leaders know they can influence their followers; it is one of the main tenets of leadership. But, most leaders, the not-so-seasoned ones, feel that their subordinates see their success in retaining customers, driving the company’s operations, or building the company over time. Yes, employees do see that. But employees also notice how these leaders talk to others, value human relations, manage conflicts, and present themselves to the ones they are supposed to influence.
A 25-year-old new hire called out his CEO in a town hall meeting of employees. This CEO, a celebrated 40-something techpreneur, had just given an eloquent speech on how he and the company valued sustainability. He issued a “clarion call” for the employees to be more green and environment-conscious. The 25-year-old raised his hand and said, “Dude, the SUV you drive daily to the office is a known fuel guzzler. Even now, your cabin lights are on, and the AC is on full blast, although we have been here for an hour. Maybe, you need to look up what sustainability and being green mean before addressing us.” The CEO retorted, “Do as I say, rather than what I do; no one is perfect.” Another employee chimed in, “That is not how it works. If you can’t make some basic adjustments to your own life, how can you expect us to do so? Giving fancy speeches is not going to cut it. Give us actionable plans and show your commitment rather than talk about it. If you can’t follow the rules, don’t make them.”
The CEO felt that these 20-somethings think too highly of themselves. They have just started working and have the gall to make others accountable. They may be Gen Z, but they are a pain. Gen Z are those born between 1997 and 2010s. They are the future of the workforce and are a global majority. They are assertive, opinionated, and probably even naïve. But they are also a large part of the current and future talent pool. And many HR practitioners may not know how to handle them or what makes them value organisations. They have learnt from their millennial seniors, are well-informed thanks to the information-explosive era that we are in, and are strong enough to defend their opinions. They may be brash, but that could also be an optimistic sign of having high self-esteem. They may not like being micro-managed but welcome feedback from those they respect. They may seem quick in ‘cancelling’ out people or calling them out on their insincere, shallow attempts at connecting, but they do value authenticity. Also read: Gen Z places their core values above company loyalty: report
One of the respondents of my study expressed her need for autonomy “I need to be myself, that is the most important, and I like being myself. I am proud of who I am, whether at work or out. I need to be true to who I am. I naturally look for others around me who are like that too.” A McKinsey report of 2020 shows that authenticity is one of the top values of Gen Z globally. They do not care about labels, are more pragmatic, and prefer transparency and accountability. This means for leaders and recruiters that the job is not done just by talking about diversity, sustainability, or inclusivity. They need to put their money where their mouth is.
Being authentic to your word translates into having transparent systems as well that are implemented the way they are designed. For example, a systems analyst who joined her new job a couple of years back mentioned, “When we joined, the HR and the seniors informed us that collaboration and teamwork are valued here, we are a family…but there is no incentive for this we are on a forced ranking system. The better we do as individuals, the higher rewards we get, and the one who comes last gets to be in a PDP (personal development plan), which is an informal indication to start looking for another job. I don’t think families do that. I understand competition is required, but don’t lie to us about valuing teamwork.” A lacuna between how your people management systems are designed or your message as a leader and how employees perceive them can trigger counterproductive work behaviour such as deviance, incivility, or even bullying. This is not just for Gen Z or millennials but true for any employee cohort who may feel a breach of their psychological contract with the organisation.
Suppose individual identity, self-expression, autonomy, and pragmatism are some of the defining values of Gen Z. In that case, recruiters and leaders should consider their employee value propositions and leadership styles. The jury may still be out on whether Gen Z is the zeitgeist of their time. Still, these digital natives value social connections while retaining individual identities and having more assertive and inclusive voices. It is time we think of being open to adapting our managerial and leadership styles to manage the future talent of our workforce.
Author is a faculty in the areas of Human Resources Management and Organizational Behaviour at Bhavan's SPJIMR (SP Jain Institute of Management and Research), Mumbai.