What Are Gen Zers Looking For In a Boss?

06/23/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Gen Zers, what I call the "second wave" Millennials born between1990-99, will never be content to labor quietly and obediently in a sink-or-swim environment. However, they will do tons of work very well, very fast, all day long with a great attitude, so long as they have the guidance, direction, support, and coaching they need from managers and so long as they know they are going to be recognized and rewarded along the way for their contributions.

What today's young workers need is strong leadership, not weak.

Remember, they love grown-ups! They do respect their elders. They are closer to their parents than any other generation has ever been! But they want respect, too. Their parents, teachers, and counselors have always treated them with respect, so they feel they deserve respect from their managers, too. Bottom line: they respect what you bring to the table and they want you to respect what they bring to the table.

Some argue that managers should soft-pedal their authority with Generation Z. Since Generation Z was raised by "helicopter parents" always trying to build up their self-esteem, the thinking here is that perhaps the best way to manage them is for managers to take a more hands-off approach, be more facilitative and less directive, de-emphasize negative feedback whenever possible, and emphasize praise and rewards as much as possible. I think that thinking is out of touch with reality.

Gen Zers don't need to be humored; they need to be taken seriously. They want to be taken seriously!

Managers should never undermine their authority; should never pretend that the job is going to be more fun than it is; never suggest that a task is within the discretion of a Gen Zer if it isn't; never gloss over details; never let problems slide; and should never offer praise and rewards for performance that is not worthy of them. Instead, managers should spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so Gen Zers know exactly what is expected of them and exactly what they need to do to meet and exceed expectations and put themselves in line for greater potential rewards.

They want to learn, to be challenged, and to understand the relationship between their work and the overall mission of the organization. They want to work with good people and have some flexibility in where, when, and how they work. They want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, are highly engaged with them, provide guidance, help them solve problems, and keep close track of their successes.

They are so eager to prove themselves--to you and to themselves--that they will do anything you want them to do as long as they know somebody is keeping track of what they are doing and giving them credit for it.

How Do You Get Gen Zers to "Go the Extra Mile"?

When it comes to driving performance "above and beyond" and getting them to "go the extra mile," the real performance drivers for Gen Z are the short-term, special rewards you negotiate. They all want something different. But they all want something, and most of them are willing to work for it.

When that new young employee knocks on your office door to discuss his special need or want of the moment, you could be outraged at their latest unreasonable demand or you could realize that this need or want might just be the key to driving this employee's performance to a whole new level, or at least the key to getting more work out of him better and faster for the short term.

The best approach is to negotiate these special rewards in very small increments. You want to be able to say, "Okay. I'll do that for you tomorrow if you do X for me today." Work a particularly undesirable shift? Work longer hours? Work with a difficult team? Do some heavy lifting? Work in some out of the way location? Clean up some unpleasant mess? Then, deliver the reward in question as soon as you possibly can. Immediate rewards are much more effective with Gen Zers because they provide a greater sense of control and a higher level of reinforcement. Gen Zers are more likely to remember the precise details and context of the performance and are therefore more likely to make the connection the next time the desired performance is called for. Plus they won't spend time wondering if their performance has been noted and appreciated, and they will therefore be less likely to lose the momentum generated by their short-term success.

That does not mean that everything is open to negotiation. You should be rock solid on your basic standards and requirements. What is not negotiable? What is essential? What is not acceptable? That's your starting point. From there, take control of the ongoing negotiation and help Gen Zers earn those special rewards they want so much. In the process, you'll get so much more, and better, and faster work out of them, one day at a time.

How Do You Give Gen Zers Corrective Feedback Without Breaking Their Hearts?

Managers often tell me they have a hard time talking to Gen Zers about suboptimal performance when negative feedback is necessary. Gen Zers have a reputation for taking negative feedback very hard.

When it comes to addressing Gen Zers' performance problems, the most common mistake managers make is soft-pedaling honest feedback or withholding it altogether. Sometimes managers take back incomplete work and finish it themselves or reassign it. Other times the problems are not addressed at all, and the work product remains substandard. Gen Zers are left to fail unwittingly or improve on their own impulse and initiative.

The second most common mistake managers make when dealing with Gen Zers' performance problems is hit-and-run criticism. Unlike soft-pedaling managers, hit-and-run managers don't hesitate to offer honest negative comments about Gen Zers' performance. But hit-and-run managers often critique work randomly--when they happen to notice a mistake and also have a moment to reach out to the employee in question--instead of systematically reviewing work product. They are likely to disparage errors and omissions, even when they haven't taken the time earlier to make expectations clear. Gen Zers usually feel blindsided by this sort of feedback.

The key to success is to keep them engaged in a constant feedback loop all the time. By keeping a bright light shining on their work, you tell them they are important and their work is important. Best of all, you will help them work a little faster and a little better. If you are constantly talking about what goes right, what goes wrong, and what is going just average, then it's going to be much easier to give corrective feedback. If you keep the conversation focused on continuous improvement, then every fix is just one small opportunity for improvement in an ongoing upward spiral.