Some Gen Z Employees Lack Enthusiasm About Work For Good Reason. Here's Why — Plus 3 Ways to Start Motivating Them.

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When I last talked about integrating the younger workforce over a year ago, they were at an advantage. A strong U.S. economy led to an employee-first reality where employees had the upper hand. Entering, leaving and reentering the workforce was easy.

Now, their economic position has largely reversed, and yet Gen Z still has a reputation of low enthusiasm for work and a higher rate of leaving jobs. A 2024 CNBC survey found they overwhelmingly value engaging work, crave autonomy in their roles and connections with their colleagues, yet many report just coasting by, or worse, feeling resentful. Businesses are still struggling to figure out how to motivate and maintain them in the modern workplace, so what are they still getting wrong?

About 10 years ago, I shared a motivational video with my team that may answer that question. A photographer was showing the view through his camera with different lenses. The camera body stayed the same, but as he changed to each lens — wide-angle, fisheye, macro — he described how it would affect what he saw.

Like a photographer with only one lens, many leaders are still considering the workplace from their own perspective, but the incoming workforce grew up with an entirely different worldview. To motivate and engage younger workers, we first need to learn to see through their lens; understand their unique skills, ambitions and perspectives; and leverage that knowledge to support them in achieving their professional goals.

Related: If You Want Your Business to Succeed, Get Gen Z to Like You — How Gen Z Will Impact Business and Marketing Decisions in 2024

Understand their lens

Every generation shifts from young and inexperienced to the new majority workforce at some point. In every transition, businesses need to first recognize the lens that has shaped the new generation’s worldview to retain them as employees. The generation entering today’s workforce grew up in an extremely polarized world — politics, religion, the environment and the Covid-19 pandemic. At times the pendulum had swung so wide and far, it inspired concern, division and fear for the future.

Encourage the older generation of workers to be responsible for adjusting their lens to see the younger generation’s new reality. Having already encountered and adapted alongside a generation that came before them, they are better equipped to facilitate integration. Meanwhile, try to inspire the younger generation to take responsibility for recognizing how a polarized lens could be shaping their view and ensuring the pendulum stays within the bounds of a productive conversation. The sooner we move our lenses toward unification and a place where we can accept our differences and move forward, the better we will be because of it.

Related: 5 Simple Tips for Incorporating Gen Z Into Your Workplace

Looking forward might require looking back

When we started Clearfield, everyone did everything and we initially felt that a flat organization with easy access to me and other senior members would be the most beneficial — and for awhile, it was. Like other startups and small businesses driving forward with a flatter structure, it helped us stay fast and agile in a shifting economy. But recently, we discovered our younger generation preferred that we go back to older philosophies.

Many younger employees come from a university environment with regular instruction, feedback and guidance — they also experienced disruptions to their lives and education during the Covid-19 pandemic. Understanding this lens lets me see how newer team members might hear about our easy access to leadership, but have a harder time living it. I could consider the ways they might benefit from more direct, instantaneous feedback and a defined boss to ask questions and get clear direction.

So, we reverted to a more traditional management model: more layers, but without silos. This allowed us to take a more hands-on approach, identify more individual capabilities and maximize those opportunities. The younger generation grew up alongside the internet and digital technology, so we zoomed in closer and identified 25-year-old MBAs joining our team with stronger Excel skills, for example. Then, we let them take the lead in demonstrating new ways to leverage it to our benefit.

Related: 7 Things to Know Before You Manage a Gen Z Team

Make opportunities visible

Our new layered structure also provided career path opportunities that were clearly defined and highly visible so team members at any age or experience level knew of them and how to achieve them. Without clarity around the criteria to earn a raise, two employees in the same role may both believe they deserve one. If their boss only recognizes and rewards one of them and tells the other to wait another year for the same opportunity, this becomes that second employee’s lens to view the company. Their boss needs to understand that lens and figure out a way to reframe it or risk losing that second employee.

If someone doing the same job as someone else is not earning the same pay as someone else, the reasons should be as clear as possible. If leaders have to turn down a raise request or promotional opportunity, they should also set clear expectations around what that employee can do to achieve it. Then, work with them through education and training to carve out an educational path that gets them there. With greater clarity around their role and promotional opportunities that might engage them, we have a better chance of keeping younger team members around to benefit from that experience.

Instead of defining themselves by their jobs like previous generations, younger employees bring a new energy. They still care about work and find self-satisfaction in their accomplishments, but view both through a lens shaped by a different worldview and their unique lived experience. Some of my kids are in their 20s, and while they might have age in common, they grew up to be very different individuals. Leaders should expect everyone will be different and plan to get to know them and what keeps them motivated — but first, they need to understand their lens to set the tone for more constructive dialogue and mutual respect.

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