Managing millennials and generation Z employees

The key to managing the next generation? Authenticity

While there are many helpful tips out there for managing the next generation in the workforce, many of them boil down to one-character trait: being authentic.

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As Millennials are now the largest part of today’s workforce and Gen Z has entered the workforce, much has been written about managing them, but a key aspect is often left out: authenticity.

The concept of authenticity is core to the next generation’s philosophy of life, so understanding it is key to engaging and retaining the leaders of tomorrow in your workplace.

The term “authenticity” is frequently misunderstood. It doesn’t just mean being transparent or easily accessible; the heart of authenticity deals with motives. Authenticity is the quality of being genuine; it has as much to do with the intention behind an action as it does with the actual action or message.

The trend toward authenticity can be seen in movements aimed at focusing away from industrialized goods and instead moving toward the handmade, local and “real.” For example, farm-to-table restaurants, artisanal crafts and microbreweries. Authentic living aims to reestablish tradition and create community and shies away from anything that comes across as overly mass-produced or disingenuous. It is a trend away from what millennials and Gen Z perceive as the prepackaged “fake” life and toward what they feel is an un-airbrushed “real” life.

In this same way, managers can create effective relationships with their next generation employees by conveying authenticity. So how can you incorporate authenticity into your management style? Here are four keys to consider.

Know yourself

Don’t try to imitate others and be someone or something that you are not. This often happens in leadership positions: a manager will read about a successful leader (e.g., Steve Jobs or Jack Welch) and then try to emulate that person. One of the next generation’s biggest pet peeves is a “fake,” so they will see through this and lose respect for you quickly.

Research backs this up. As a study from Harvard Business Review states:

“After analyzing 3,000 pages of transcripts, our team was startled to see that these [successful leaders] did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success. Rather, their leadership emerged from their life stories.” 1

The best leaders are those who are authentic and embrace their own leadership style instead of trying to be someone they aren’t.

Knowing who you are also requires self-awareness, a key trait of emotional intelligence. In order to embrace your own style, you must first know your own style. One study 2 showed that only 36% of people can accurately identify their emotions as they happen (a major part of self-awareness). This is in sharp contrast to what the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council recommends as the most important capability for leaders to develop: self-awareness. To more fully develop your self-awareness, try developing your soft skills.

Follow through

Be the person you say you are and practice what you preach. If you reprimand your direct report for being a jerk, then don’t act like a jerk yourself. If you or your company says you value something, embody that value. Millennials and Gen Z want to see action, not just talk.

As you follow through, it is important to not just go through the motions. Blindly following “best practices” or fulfilling a company mandate without having your heart in it can be even worse than not doing it at all. Next gen can easily spot ulterior motives, rendering your actions ineffective. This can be especially destructive if employees perceive appreciation or recognition programs as not genuine and authentic.

Be accountable

Millennials and Gen Z understand that no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. As a leader, if you make a mistake, accept responsibility for it and try to make things right, and those you lead will respect you more for it. Along the same lines, it is also important to give credit where it is due. Don’t try to claim responsibility for successes that you were not responsible for.

Be realistic

Millennials and Gen Z don’t want to be sold to. Don’t try to humor them or paint a picture that isn’t true. Communicate about what the situation is truly like, whether it is a work assignment or an issue with their work. Some managers try to recruit young employees by giving glowing portrayals of the company and work responsibilities during their job interviews, but then when they accept a position, “real life” settles in and it’s nothing like what was previously described. It’s important to be honest with young employees about what their day-to-day work life will really look like. They will appreciate your honesty and be more willing to stick around, rather than bolting to someplace that has been more honest with them.

It is also important to offer honest constructive feedback to the next generation. While not all of them have thick skin, many appreciate candor as long as it’s offered in the spirit of helping them improve. Don’t sugarcoat criticism, but don’t provide it in a way that cuts them down. Millennials and Gen Z generally see feedback as part of the improvement process. Frame feedback as a way to help them improve, and most will appreciate your input.

In summary

While there are many helpful tips out there for managing the next generation in the workforce, many of them boil down to one-character trait: being authentic. Because each organization and each individual are different, authenticity will look different for everyone ... so don’t try to copy someone else. Lead in the way that comes naturally to you, and the next generation will respect you for it.

Contact Daniel White using the information below to learn more about managing next generation employees.

Daniel White

Vice President
Org. Development & Family Business Services

Daniel White assists organizations with their organizational development needs, including strategic and operational planning, leadership development, succession and exit planning, and family business advising. He has worked with a wide range of industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, banking, not-for-profits, and government organizations. He has also worked internationally as an organizational development consultant, serving organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ghana. Prior to advising organizations, he worked in not-for-profit leadership and operations, directing projects with clients such as the US Department of State and the United Nations Population Fund.

Daniel serves as associate director of the Kansas Family Business Forum, hosted by Wichita State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship. He holds a certificate in Family Business Advising from The Family Firm Institute. Daniel also earned his Certified Exit Planner designation from BEI. This designation demonstrates he is qualified to provide comprehensive, professionally executed exit planning services. He has been published in Fast Company and several academic journals, and he has presented at a number of national conferences.

1Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, Harvard Business Review; Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean, Diana Mayer; February 2007.
2Emotional Intelligence 2.0; Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves; 2009.

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