Generational Bridges: Navigating the Nuances of Leading Gen Z in the Modern Workplace

As a Community Psychologist, my expertise lies in dissecting the psychology of communities—how they function, unite or disintegrate, evolve, heal, or advance. Gen Z represents a unique community, characterized by its distinct collective and individual psychological makeup. For leaders born into the Boomer, Gen X, or even the earlier segments of the Millennial generations, it quickly becomes evident that Gen Z’s approach to the workplace diverges significantly from that of their predecessors. Navigating the nuances of working alongside Gen Z, or “Genzies,” can be challenging without a proper understanding of their perspective. Drawing on my extensive experience as the executive director of a clinical community health organization since 2016, I have had the privilege of ushering in 6-10 new graduate school clinical interns each fall, most of whom are aged between 24-28. This annual influx of young talent has allowed me to work and teach these emerging professionals hand in hand every year, providing me with a front-row seat to the evolving dynamics of Gen Z in a professional setting. My role has not only enabled me to contribute to their growth but has also offered invaluable insights into the generational nuances that define our collaborative efforts.

What sets Gen Z apart is their strategic adoption of tactics reminiscent of Solinski’s “Rules for Radicals”—a collective belief in the power of unity to enact change. 60% of Gen Z employees are convinced that by rallying together, they possess the capability to influence and modify workplace policies. [Edelman, 2023]

This generation is not shy about engaging with leadership to demand modifications and is prepared to sever ties if their expectations are not met. While some might interpret these actions as entitlement, a closer examination reveals a paradigm shift: Gen Z is championing social justice and equity, firmly placing these values on the corporate agenda.

Interestingly, this transformative mindset isn’t confined to corporate environments; it’s profoundly reshaping family dynamics as well. Nearly half of Gen Z individuals report ceasing communication with their parents, highlighting a stark generational divide. The Boomer generation, which raised many of these young adults, grew up in an era largely oblivious to mental health awareness or even boundaries within familial relationships. At that time, societal expectations emphasized the traditional roles of men as the primary breadwinners over being aware of emotions, roles and equality. This historical backdrop now clashes with today’s evolved standards, where dialogues around mental health, respect, and boundary-setting are paramount. Today, Gen Z brings these expectations to familial discussions, ready to distance themselves from relationships that fail to honor their values and autonomy; the workplace is no exception. 

This scenario presents an interesting paradox; for years, society has been encouraging younger generations to assert their independence and advocate for their needs. Yet, when Gen Z embodies this empowerment, their actions are often misinterpreted as entitlement. Through this piece, I aim to shift this narrative, to highlight that what we’re witnessing is not entitlement but empowerment and signs of readiness to lead their peers. Gen Z’s readiness to demand respect, both in professional settings and personal life, underscores a significant cultural shift towards valuing mental health and individual dignity above traditional hierarchies.

Harnessing engagement, growth, and retention from GenZ requires a fundamental reevaluation of our approaches to leadership and organizational culture. Here’s how:

1. Redefine Leadership and Access: Begin by critically examining traditional notions of power, privilege, and access within corporate settings. The hierarchical structures that once defined corporate success are being challenged by Gen Z’s demand for immediate inclusion and representation. Leadership must prioritize fresh, innovative perspectives over established practices, acknowledging that true progress arises from diverse and dynamic contributions.

2. Establish a “Sandbox” for Innovation: Create spaces within your organization where Gen Z employees can experiment with new ideas, policies, and initiatives. This “sandbox” approach allows for controlled testing within specific segments of your company or market before broader implementation. It encourages creativity and risk-taking, essential components for dynamic growth and adaptation.

3. Empower Through Autonomy: Embrace the radical notion of distributing power to your organization’s youngest members. Encourage their participation in decision-making processes and give them substantial control over their projects. Our agency practices this by amplifying the voices of those typically positioned lower in the hierarchy, empowering them to shape corporate culture and policies directly.

4. Commit to Transparency: For Gen Z, transparency isn’t just a policy—it’s a prerequisite for trust and engagement. They are not inclined to withdraw in the face of adversity; instead, they mobilize. Leverage this tenacity by maintaining openness about your organization’s challenges, decisions, and policies. This includes acknowledging the different standards that may apply to executive positions and being prepared to discuss and justify these discrepancies openly.

5. Focus on Impact Over Titles: Gen Z workers seek meaningful work that contributes positively to the community or makes a difference in the lives of others. They are less motivated by traditional markers of corporate success, such as titles and promotions, and more by the tangible impact of their work. Multiple large, nationwide surveys indicate that 70-80-% respondents stated careers with a positive impact on society is of critical importance to them.  If your organization supports communities or charitable causes, highlight these initiatives, and when expanding that reach, ask your youngest staff what projects or charitable causes are important to them! It’s crucial that Gen Z employees see their labor as part of a larger purpose, not just as a means to enrich the company’s executives.

By embracing these principles—rethinking leadership structures, fostering innovation, empowering young talent, prioritizing transparency, and emphasizing the impact of work—you create an environment where Gen Z employees feel valued, heard, and motivated. This not only enhances their commitment and satisfaction but also positions your organization as a forward-thinking leader in the modern corporate landscape

– Jessica Swenson, PhD 

   Executive Director 

About the Author of This Blog:

Jessica Swenson, PhD: A Vanguard in Community Mental Health and Organizational Culture

Dr. Jessica Swenson stands at the forefront of community psychology and mental health advocacy, dedicating her career to fostering inclusive, supportive environments both within and outside the therapeutic setting. With a deep-rooted passion for social justice and mental wellness, Jessica has channeled her expertise into significant roles as a Clinical Therapist and Executive Director of TGC, and a sought-after consultant at Brenson Advisory.

Jessica’s journey began with the founding of TGC in 2016, a testament to her visionary leadership and unwavering commitment to community service. Under her guidance, TGC blossomed into one of the nation’s largest minority led, 501(c)(3) community mental health centers, renowned for its minority leadership and focus. Today, over 90% of TGC’s leadership identifies as part of a minority group, embodying the center’s dedication to social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) at every level.

A PhD in Community Psychology has equipped Jessica with the insight and expertise to create solutions and drive change across healthcare settings and educational institutions. Her work extends beyond the walls of TGC, offering transformative strategies to organizations keen on cultivating healthy, inclusive workplace cultures and communities. As a consultant with Brenson Advisory, she leverages her knowledge in clinical therapy and community psychology to guide businesses and healthcare organizations to overcome their greatest workforce, community or client challenges.

Jessica’s contributions to the field of mental health and community improvement have not gone unnoticed. She has been a featured speaker sharing her wisdom on topics ranging from DEIA and corporate culture to community improvement and mental health advocacy. Her voice has added valuable perspectives at prestigious gatherings, including most recently, the Chicago Executive’s Club. Other engagements have included: American Psychological Association, Illinois Valley Community College, the Society for Community Research in Action, the Midwest Psychological Association, the Prevention Institute, the Rise Network, and Compassionate Care Clinics.