There are several stereotypes about younger generations that are often held up as being the truth.
When I’m delivering training and this topic comes up, I’ll sometimes do a “stereotyping activity” where I’ll hear people make statements such as:
- “Younger generations are lazy and have no work ethic”
- “Young people have no loyalty”
- “They think they know everything”
- “They always want to know why we are doing things”.
As with many stereotypes, while there may be some truth in these for some people, they won’t necessarily apply to everybody in the group. But I also find these statements to be instructive.
What can we learn from the younger generations that can help to shape our leadership for the better? And I mean that for everybody, not just the younger people in our team.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the important leadership lessons that I believe the younger generations (such as Gen Z or Alpha) can teach us.
Do the Younger Generations Scare Us?
I think it’s important to acknowledge something about the younger generations.
Younger generations represent change, and change can be scary.
They also represent a threat to the way we’ve always done things. They threaten our methods and knowledge, which are part of what make us feel valuable.
Imagine if all the things we were good at were no longer relevant? Or the knowledge we have was no longer highly regarded? These can be scary thoughts.
I believe that many of the people who criticise younger generations do so from a place of fear and uncertainty. But to lead and learn from younger generations, we need to embrace these feelings and prevent them from ruling our behaviour.
Take a moment to remember the iceberg model, as shown below.
If we aren’t aware of what’s under the waterline of our own personal iceberg, we may fall into the trap of criticising, belittling or ignoring what the younger generations are teaching us.
Learn More: Want to Build Empathy? Use the Iceberg Model.
What Can We Learn From Younger Generations?
I think there are several lessons we can learn from younger generations, especially when it comes to leadership.
In many ways, I believe what they bring to the workplace reinforces useful leadership behaviours, so we should stop and take notice.
Here are my top takeaways that we can learn from the younger generations.
1. Think About “Why” to Challenge the Status Quo
One thing I notice about the stories I hear about younger generations is that they tend to question things.
Why do we do it like that?
Can’t we do it this way instead?
That way doesn’t make sense.
This can be very frustrating for leaders, because they just want their people to go and do the stuff, not ask questions about it.
And it is true that often there *are* reasons why we do things the way we currently do.
However, there are also situations where there is no longer necessarily a good reason for continuing with the way we currently work.
The Pointless Report
Earlier in my leadership career, I once took over a team where one team member was in charge of sending out a monthly report.
She would spend hours putting the report together and then email it to a distribution group.
I asked her who received the report, and what they said about it. She said she never really received any feedback.
On further investigation, it turned out that many of the original recipients of the report had left the company. The ones who remained didn’t look at it.
Sometimes it’s good to challenge the status quo. In fact, “Challenge the process” is one of the key practices in Kouzes and Posner’s Exemplary Leadership model.
2. Treat People Well – Loyalty Is Not a One-Way Street
Another stereotype of younger generations is that they don’t have any loyalty.
They change jobs quickly when they see something that might be better, instead of sticking around. Gallup research indicated that only half of millennials (Gen Y) surveyed said that they were planning on being with their current employer a year from now.
I’ve always had an issue with the concept of loyalty. I’ve often seen it used as a weapon: “I’m going to do what suits me, and you’re going to accept it because you’re loyal.”
Loyalty works both ways. You show loyalty to me, and I’ll show loyalty to you.
Treat people like rubbish or maintain a demotivating work environment, and they should leave. Otherwise, this sets the precedent for the type of company culture where this type of leadership is tolerated.
3. Life Is About More Than Work
Something that always impresses me about younger generations is that they tend to (in general) focus on enjoyment in life.
That’s not to say they have no work ethic. I’ve worked with many younger people who are committed and work hard.
But – many of them like to maintain a balance. They work, but then they also like to enjoy their life outside of work.
A profession that eats too much into that “life” time will sometimes be jettisoned for a more balanced role.
We often hear people lamenting that the younger generations have “no work ethic”. But what they might be is just a little more discerning about where they choose to spend their time.
This is instructive for leaders, because we should be aiming to create work environments that are productive, supportive and motivating, rather than chaotic, overwhelming and super-stressful.
If you hear yourself saying that you want people to have a better work ethic, just check that you don’t really mean “I want them to do more work than they are supposed to.”
After all, we have created a working environment across the globe which is leading to higher stress and mental health problems than ever before. ComPsych data from this American Institute of Stress article reinforces this, showing that 62% of workers across multiple industries feel they have high levels of work stress.
Time for a change, no?
Unrelated thought: I wonder what it’s like to work at the American Institute of Stress? 🤔
4. Pay Attention to What’s Happening In the Market
When we see younger generations job-hopping and jumping to different opportunities, we sometimes assume they have no loyalty, resilience or commitment.
Or, have they simply identified a better opportunity in an organisation that is doing things differently?
One difference between now and 30 years ago is the visibility we have into how companies operate. We see news articles and social media spruiking the attractive benefits.
And we see websites like Glassdoor and Seek which tell us which companies are good to work for, and which might not be.
We are far more informed than ever before. So the lesson here for leaders is to pay attention to the market and the competition.
If your competitor is moving to a 4-day work week, your people will likely know this. And hey, wouldn’t you rather work 4 days instead of 5?
It’s important for leaders to keep up to date with workplace trends, instead of complaining about people that choose to look somewhere else.
Younger Generations Aren’t Perfect, But We Can Sure Take a Few Lessons
The next time a Gen-Z, Alpha (or some other new label they come up with!) person has you frustrated and aggravated, take some time to stop and think.
Are they actually challenging some of our held workplace norms and beliefs?
And could your leadership benefit from taking notice of some of the things they say?
I’d love to read your thoughts on this topic. What do you think of the younger generations? Leave a comment for me and all the other thoughtful leaders below!