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The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
Sana Lall-Trail

Sana Lall-Trail

Senior Data Journalist, Culture Amp

There’s a new kid on the block – the Gen Z manager – and everyone has an opinion about them. Gen Z is the most recent generation to enter the workforce, and like every generation before them, they’re facing stereotypes and generalizations from their older colleagues.

Members of Gen Z are often referred to as “digital natives” because they’ve grown up online, but their lives haven’t been easy. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted their college experiences and first jobs. They have also had to navigate significant uncertainty as the climate crisis worsens and a potential economic recession looms. As this generation moves forward in their careers, companies want to understand what Gen Z is looking for. Is there any truth to the negative portrayals of them as difficult, disengaged, and tech-obsessed?

To find out, we checked our customer data to see if it would confirm or disprove these criticisms. Instead of just looking at this generation as a whole, we decided to press further, looking into the specific experience of Gen Z (ages 18 - 24) managers. While much has been written about Gen Z joining the workforce, as these employees age, the next frontier is learning about how they show up as managers – who, as we know, have an outsized impact on the organization.

Myth-busting three beliefs about Gen Z managers

Pulling from what we’ve learned about Gen Z managers’ experiences from a data set of 100k+ managers and 300k+ of their direct reports from ~2,400 companies, we discovered more about Gen Z managers’ strengths and values and identified unique opportunities for organizations to support this group.

Let’s dive in.

Myth 1: Gen Z can’t communicate effectively

According to a study by Resume Builder in April 2023, 74% of managers and leaders have expressed concerns that Gen Z is more difficult to work with than previous generations, with 36% attributing this to a lack of communication skills.

The underlying assumption here is that Gen Z grew up with technology and then transitioned to remote school and/or work experiences where they did not have an opportunity to build in-person relationships and the strong interpersonal skills to match. Some leaders also believe Gen Zers are especially ill-equipped to communicate in uncomfortable circumstances.

One of the more uncomfortable yet necessary skills of effective managers is the ability to communicate feedback well. To see if the belief about Gen Z’s poor communication skills holds true, we looked at our data to see how Gen Z managers compared to their generational counterparts.

Comparing communication skills of managers of different generational groups

We found that a significant 81% of direct reports agreed that their Gen Z managers are good at giving useful feedback on how they are performing – a higher percentage than all other age groups outside of Millennials.

Similarly, while offering constructive feedback is a difficult task for all managers, more than half (59%) of direct reports of Gen Z managers agreed that when someone is not delivering in their role, something is done about it – a finding which is 7% higher than it is for direct reports of managers between the ages of 35 - 44, and at least 11% higher than for those whose managers were older than 45. This gap continues to widen as the age of managers increases. While the statement “When it is clear that someone is not delivering in their role, we do something about it” doesn’t specifically reference communication, we know that any effective intervention requires that managers first communicate clearly, transparently, and proactively with the relevant party.

Our Verdict: FALSE. Gen Z managers do have strong communication skills. According to their direct reports, they demonstrate an ability to deliver feedback and address poor performance – and our data shows they are, in fact, better at communicating than many of their peers in other generations.

Myth 2: Gen Z lacks motivation

In that same Resume Builder study, 37% of managers and leaders shared that Gen Z are difficult to work with because they aren’t motivated enough to perform well. Other sources echo this sentiment, with Korn Ferry describing this generation as “ambivalent about their workplace.”

And as many of us know, motivation x ability = performance.

For insights, we turned to employee responses to the statement, “My company motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere.” Our data revealed that 67% - 69% of managers between the ages of 25 - 64 agreed with this statement, while only 62% of Gen Z managers (18 - 24) agreed that their companies motivate them to go beyond what they would elsewhere.

However, when looking at individual contributors (ICs) of the same generation, we found that 71% of Gen Z ICs agreed with this statement, higher than any other age group of ICs.

Comparing levels of motivation between different generations (managers and individual contributors)

From the graph above, we can see that not only are more Gen Z ICs sharing that they are motivated by their companies than other age groups, but the gap between ICs and managers between the ages of 18 - 24 is the largest compared to all other age groups.

Why might this be the case? One possibility is that Gen Z managers are more likely to be first-time managers since they are earlier in their careers. As a matter of fact, our people scientists found that first-time managers experience a drop in how positively they feel towards their companies when they are promoted. This may contribute to the large gap in motivation between Gen Z managers and ICs. It will be interesting to see how these results change (if at all) as Gen Z rises in the workplace ranks.

But thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story for now. To remedy this gap, we looked at the key drivers for motivating Gen Z managers and found that the top two drivers are:

  1. “The leaders at my company demonstrate that people are important to the company's success” (Leadership)
  2. “My company is in a position to really succeed over the next three years” (Company Confidence)

Based on these insights, organizations should make a concerted effort to support Gen Z managers by communicating their plans for organizational success – and the significant role that these managers will play in it.

Verdict: TRUE-ish. We did find that Gen Z managers are less motivated by their companies than their peers; however, the data tells another story when looking at ICs of this generation. We found that Gen Z ICs are the most likely to feel that their company motivates them. However, it’s also important to note one caveat: as Gen Z managers have become managers at a pretty young age, it’s highly likely that they are more intrinsically motivated than the average employee. As a result, they may also be less likely to attribute their motivation to their companies.

To close this significant motivation gap between Gen Z managers and ICs, organizations have an opportunity to further support their Gen Z managers by intentionally including them in their plans for success.

Myth 3: Transparency is key to driving Gen Z engagement

To further motivate and engage the Gen Z population, thought leaders have proposed that increasing transparency is key. An HBR article recommended that this organizational strategy will help reduce uncertainty and build trust for Gen Zers in their workplaces.

So, does this recommendation pan out in our customer data for our managers?

We found that one of the top five drivers of engagement for Gen Z managers was having “open and honest two-way communication” at their organizations, with a strong positive correlation (r = .61). For managers in other age groups, transparent communication did not show up in their top 15 drivers of engagement.

Comparing how different generations rank the importance of open and honest communication in the workplace

Another top-five driver was being “appropriately involved in decisions at work,” which also had a strong positive correlation (r = .59) with engagement. Again, transparency in organizational decision-making did not show up in the top 20 factors for all other age groups’ engagement, showing that transparency is uniquely engaging for Gen Z managers. We also found that this aspect strongly correlates (r = .67) to their interest in staying with their companies and not looking elsewhere for employment (retention).

Comparing how different generations rank the importance of being appropriately involved in workplace decisions

These findings show that transparency, especially when it comes to organizational communication and decision-making, uniquely drives engagement for Gen Z managers, even compared to Gen Z ICs.

Verdict: TRUE. HBR’s advice was right – increasing transparency is a great energizer for Gen Z managers.

Understand and engage your Gen Z managers

In this article, we learned much about what is true and not so true about the experience of Gen Z managers compared to generational lore.

We found that:

  1. Gen Z managers can communicate effectively, as evidenced by their skills in effectively giving feedback to their direct reports, compared to other managers.
  2. Companies are not motivating Gen Z managers as much as other managers, and organizations have an opportunity to uniquely support them by communicating their role in their companies’ longer-term plans for success.
  3. Transparency is a key lever to driving Gen Z managers’ engagement, especially regarding open communication and appropriate involvement in decision-making.

We also discovered that the experience of Gen Z managers differs from ICs of the same generation. As this group moves up the corporate ladder and moves into managerial roles, it’s necessary to shift the conversation from “Why is Gen Z difficult to work with?” to “How can we support Gen Z to bring their unique strengths to work?”

Practicing embedding transparency and proactively communicating your company strategy with managers is a great start.

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