How Gen Z bosses lead

Alexis Kayser (Email) – Becker’s Hospital Review

Members of Generation Z are rapidly moving into leadership roles, bringing new ideas about what work can and should look like, The Wall Street Journal reported March 10.

Gen Zers — those born between 1997 and 2012 — began to enter the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, when work was anything but normal. They were home when their parents’ jobs went remote and became unsettled by the lack of work-life balance they witnessed — and the cold, stifling management structures they sometimes encountered.

As the newest generation enters the working ranks, it is doing so with a bit of resistance. Dress codes and traditional hierarchies seem unnecessary to some Gen Zers, who value authenticity and crave fluidity between the work self and the person they are outside of work. They have higher emotional intelligence scores than their predecessors and speak more openly about their experiences (even personal ones, such as mental health struggles). As a result, Gen Z values patience and empathy the most in their managers, according to a recent survey from Deloitte.

Although Gen Z accounts for only 16.8% of the workforce, its members are climbing the ranks: They were promoted into management roles 1.2 times faster in 2023 than in 2019, according to the ADP Research Institute.

The Journal spoke with young bosses and founders and found that they foster a nontraditional work environment. One company run by two Gen Zers has “mindfulness Fridays,” banning meetings to allow for deep focus, and “heart checks” to see how direct reports feel about pay and workload. Another 25-year-old boss said she solicits feedback regularly, retreating into introspection and searching for “emotional wisdom.” And one 29-year-old senior vice president is giving employees more space to work on their own, separating his expectations of himself from his expectations of his team.

Some Gen Z-run workplaces cater more to the human experience than the employee one. Sneakers and cursing are commonplace. Heart emojis are common in Slack channels. Therapy appointments are labeled in teammates’ calendars.

Nadya Okamoto, 26, co-founder of the menstrual care product company August, speaks openly about her borderline personality disorder diagnosis and how it influences her leadership style.

“We talk a lot more than most places about how to prevent burnout,” she told the Journal. “One of the things I’ve learned the most is to slow down.”

A more traditional boss might reply to Ms. Okamoto with some version of the phrase: “No one wants to work these days.” In a 2023 survey, 75% of managers said Gen Z is harder to work with than other generations, citing a lack of effort, motivation, productivity, and communication and technological skills. They also criticized Gen Z for being easily distracted and offended.

Gen Zers have reported low productivity themselves, but they attribute the disconnect to the way their predecessors manage. The jury is out on whether this gap will close as their peers take the helm, creating a workplace more suited to them. As Erin Burck, August’s vice president of business development, told the Journal: “You can still bust your ass all day and be emotionally available. What’s the harm in that?”

The generation’s future in healthcare

Twelve Gen Z master’s students enrolled in leading healthcare administration programs spoke to Becker’s in March 2023 about their visions for the future. They spoke of reducing healthcare disparities; improving physical and emotional safety in the industry; and balancing vital human connection with emerging technologies. They expressed a desire to “trailblaze” and serve as “change agents,” which does not reflect the language of low motivation.

Aiden Hettler, 24, is an industry example of Gen Z leadership in action. He serves as CEO of Sedgwick County Health Center in Julesburg, Colo., a role he applied for at age 22. He recently told Becker’s he is working on navigating relationships and picked up shifts as a dietary cook at the hospital to learn the industry from the grassroots up. His fresh perspective and lack of experience may have worked in his favor, he said.

“I think the board was willing to take a chance on me because they hired a lot of CEOs in the past that came to the interview and have all of this healthcare experience, and they’ll do this and they’ll do that and then, it didn’t really always pan out that way,” Mr. Hettler said. “So I think that they were willing to take a gamble on someone who I think they felt had the heart for this and had the mindset and willingness to learn.”

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