If you are like most people, you probably have an opinion of “kids these days” — and by kids, we usually mean anyone who doesn’t seem like an adult, even if they’re 22. When it comes to communicating with these “kids”, many seem at a loss. It’s for good reasons too. It’s hard to miss their poor eye contact, short responses, and lack of understanding during conversations. Whatever the perception of these teens and young adults, “getting through” to them seems to be more challenging than ever.
For 10-15 years, a lot of information has been written about how to work and interact with the next generation. When many think about 20-year-olds, they think of millennials, but what most may not realize is how old millennials are now. The first millennials are almost 40 — and the last ones are closer to 30 than the 20-year-old we’ve been calling a millennial for years. The recent college graduate today and especially the 16-year-old entering the workforce are a part of a new generation — and they are undoubtedly different.
The Next Generation
Generation Y (Millennials) was born in the ’80s and early ’90s, and those born after 1995 are now being labeled by experts as Generation Z. Which means the young workers in our businesses, are probably going to be a little different than we might expect. Some of the shifts include a generation that has never seen a world without advanced technology. Smartphones are not smart, they’re just “phones” — and they are an inseparable part of their lives. They are used to having instant access, constant communication, and on-demand entertainment — which makes them loathe being bored. Gen Z is also hyperaware and more pragmatic than their predecessors, having grown up in a recession. They are more career-driven in their mindset and eager to make progress in what they see as a competitive world.
Understanding these differences is absolutely essential to improving our communication with Gen Z. The communication process has always been complex, but great leaders learn how to relate their message to others to collectively reach goals. Practically anyone can bark orders, but creating shared meaning requires a more strategic approach to your communication.
How Well Am I Communicating Now?
Do you already communicate well with Gen Z in your workplace? Examine your communication by asking yourself these questions:
- Do I repeat the same thing over and over when I speak to them?
- Do I give more instructions rather than explanations when I tell them to do something?
- Do I talk and tell more than I ask and listen?
- Do I tend to miss opportunities to give frequent feedback?
- Do I only have conversations related to work?
- Do I sometimes speak down to them?
If you found yourself leaning towards yes to any of those, you could be missing an opportunity to maximize your communication with the next generation. Here are five suggestions to improve your connection with Gen Z.
Most of us give little attention to the things we routinely say to each other. Researchers call this mindless communication — or simply speaking without thinking. At times we sacrifice the effectiveness of our words because we unconsciously repeat scripts that lose their meaning. Gen Z is especially sensitive to communication that appears routine, repetitive, or inauthentic. It is why a teen may notoriously “tune out” their parents when they say something like “How many times have I told you to …! Are you not listening?!”.
In his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow mentions how people’s perceptions of what we say are greatly influenced by simply how we say it. More than we may think, our tone, pitch, speed, and cadence reveal our state of mind and our character to others. Gen Z can spot a fake a mile away and if we are not genuine in our communication — they’ll likely know it. When we are mindful of our communication choices, we can implement better strategies to reach and influence our young employees.
A common mistake older generations may make with young people is they minimize or entirely dismiss their concerns. Teens and young adults already feel misunderstood by older adults (by the way, if you aren’t their age, to them, you’re an older adult — even if you are only in your late twenties). They also barely understand themselves, and generally, their experiences tell them no one else will understand them either. You can change this perception by just being responsive to what they say. This isn’t always easy. Gen Z, like other generations, has a hard time expressing their feelings into words. It’s why they may repeat a hundred times that everything is “dumb” or “stupid.” Sometimes they just want someone to listen. When you empathize with them, you will build their trust.
A simple way to increase your responsiveness could be to utilize the phrase: “I understand.” Such as “I understand… what you’re saying — how you feel — how that could be hard.” Also, reiterate what they’ve said. By confirming they’ve been heard, you are building a connection based on respect. Remember though, you actually need to believe what you’re saying — false empathy probably won’t fool this generation and only widen the misunderstanding gap. Also keep in mind, due to the saturation of digital devices, Gen Z has a very short attention span. A bigger impact will occur when you use shorter but more frequent conversations. Long responses may be in danger of triggering the feeling of a dreaded lecture.
Gen Z has grown up relating everything they do through images. It’s not that they are incapable of understanding written or auditory messaging, but they will undoubtedly understand visual communication better. If we want to get through — we need to get visual. Not every context or conversation allows for you to pull out a picture, but adding more visual elements in your communication increases your effectiveness to be understood.
A simple way to increase visuals may also include using metaphors in your explanations. We can create visuals in our listener’s mind by the words we choose. You can doodle pictures on paper, relate to personal or mutual experiences, or use more physical demonstrations. It may take some creativity, but always explore more visible elements in your communication.
According to the Pew Research Center in 2018, nearly half of Gen Z is a racial or ethnic minority —which means they are the most diverse generation in American history. They are used to differences and are more open-minded than their predecessors. Increasing multiculturalism and globalization from Gen Z filling out the workforce will require business leaders to use more inclusive communication strategies. Researchers mention strategies such as transformational leadership, which focus on using communication to understand and relate to multi-cultural employees to inspire and help them perform at their best. Most importantly, it’s about demonstrating you value their differences. Gen Z is sensitive on this issue and if you appear closed off —they might check out on you.
Being inclusive also means you are willing to hear what they have to say. Gen Z has ideas — and sometimes they might surprise you if you give them a chance to offer their perspective. It may be easy to dismiss it with the “that’ll never work…” mantra, but listening to their ideas will strengthen and empower your young employees.
Have you ever heard the phrase “You get what you expect”? One of the most powerful and proven behavioral theories is called the Pygmalion Effect, which simply means we tend to rise to the level of expectations others have of us. When it comes to young employees, too often older adults have predetermined low expectations of them. They may think, “Well, they’re just a kid…they probably can’t do…” It’s easy to think. Our experiences may validate the feeling the next 20-year-old is going to underwhelm, but when you have thoughts about their value, it’s really hard not to reveal it when you communicate. Which is why you must harness the power of belief in your young employees by expecting them to be great. Choose to see their potential and where they could be instead of where they are.
Other ways to communicate belief and high expectations can be accomplished without words. Entrusting young employees with more responsibility can transmit positive expectations. You can also demonstrate belief by letting them speak and offer their input. When you do speak, look for opportunities to praise what they’ve done right. Provide detailed and frequent feedback to show you care and expect them to be capable. The only danger in communicating high expectations could be the possibility you come off as a demanding jerk, but if you are being responsive first — you’ve already built a bridge of trust that will support your expectations. Sometimes we all just want someone to believe in us — and that’s all it takes for us to produce.
Are You Willing?
Sometimes when suggestions like these are made, many feel they are catering too much towards young people, possibly even pampering. Shouldn’t they have to adjust to us? They do — but great leaders meet people where they are and help them get to where they should be. It starts with communication. The key is deciding you want to get through, and the process can be a more productive experience for everyone.