Stop Labeling ‘Gen Z’ers’ and Start Leading Them

It seems like it was just yesterday the workforce was lamenting about millennials. They don’t work hard, they are selfish, they are spoiled, etc. 

Millennials can take a breath and relax because Generation Z has now taken up the mantle of the lazy, spoiled and selfish generation. I am a Gen Xer and I remember being thankful for passing the mantle of the weakest generation ever to the millennials. Notice the pattern?

As I work with organizations here in the valley and around the world on leadership and personal development, I am now hearing about the frailty of this current generation of workers, Generation Z. This is particularly true of the hospitality industry that relies on Gen Zers for their seasonal work.

The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, Gen Z. Enough! Whoever makes these labels needs to readjust and label groups as they pass through time, not as an entire generation. What do I mean exactly? Many 20-somethings will always act like 20-somethings regardless of when they were born. They act like know-it-alls, they defy authority at every turn, they don’t have their values in place yet, and they ask “why?” all the time.

The same applies with traits that belong to 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings, and on and on. People’s values mature as they move through life. They don’t remain stagnant as our generational labels imply.

Since “Generation Z” has essentially become a dirty phrase (if you’re older than a Gen Zer), here is what we need to do as leaders: Get over the labels and start leading. Young adults will always be outspoken, opinionated, and sure, their way is right. Guess what? Their way might be right. And if you are categorically dismissing Gen Zers, guess what else? You’re the stodgy, close-minded, old person you’re being accused of being. And you’re probably missing out on some good ideas.

I was a Navy SEAL back in the 1990s. The men we learned from were our great Vietnam veterans. They were smart, hard core and completely dedicated to passing their lessons of war on to the next generation. But the relationship had its bumps. The Vietnam Frogmen seemed to dismiss our ideas and didn’t always respect what we had to say … so said us. We were accused of being know-it-alls, cocky and disrespectful. Guess what? We were 20-somethings! We were probably all those things and more.

But you know what else? We did have good ideas. We did care. We felt like there was a better way to do certain things based on updated technology. And we asked “why?”… a lot.

Great leaders look at that youthful spirit as a positive attribute to be harnessed. They don’t judge; they lead. They let their young followers make mistakes, gently guide them in the right direction, and accept that as time advances so do ideas. And what of that annoying “why?” question? Answering “why” isn’t a big deal if you know the answer. Answering “why” isn’t a big deal if you are not afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Answering “why” is only a big deal if you are afraid to acknowledge you don’t have all the answers.

As a leader, once answering questions from your team, including your young Gen Zers, becomes a problem, you’ve started down the path of losing your team. Once you have dismissed them as weaker from every other generation of twenty-somethings, you have begun the process of losing your team.

Great leaders set clear standards of excellence and hold everyone accountable to them consistently regardless of age or experience. Of course, some of the Gen Zers out there will choose not to conform to a leader’s standards. This is not a new or shocking revelation.

And guess what? Some of the millennials and Gen Xers on your team won’t conform to standards either. When this happens do we go back and lament over the millennial and Gen X generations?

No, we lead. Great leaders lead everyone, including those pesky Gen Zers.

Errol Doebler is a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, FBI terrorism investigator and founder of his leadership consulting company, “Ice Cold Leader.” He can be contacted at Hello@Icecoldleader.com.

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