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Why Gen Z Values Authentic Leaders (And How To Become One)


  • If leaders want Gen Zers to pay attention to them in the workplace, then they have to understand what makes them care. 
  • According to Dain Dunston, a founding Partner at Reservoir LLC., Gen Zers want to be seen, feel that they belong, and that their presence makes a difference.  
  • Gen Z might like to work with older leaders who can help them improve their self-awareness and do something really meaningful with their lives. 

2022 will see more Gen Zers in the workplace than ever before, and authenticity is a key quality that they’re looking for in their leaders and companies. 

By 2025, Gen Z will make up more than a quarter of the entire U.S. workforce.   

Gen Z (also called Zoomers) may be young, but they are also the most diverse generation yet, and they have experienced the world in a vastly different way than previous generations.  

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“Boomers lived under the constant threat of nuclear holocaust, and then sat home and watched civil rights marches, riots, and the war in Vietnam on their televisions. Gen-Z lived in the shadow of 9/11 and the forever war in the Middle East, and watched on their devices the seemingly nonstop school shootings. And now they’ve come through two years of pandemic lockdowns and suddenly find themselves in the opening days of what may turn out to be another World War,” said Dain Dunston, a founding Partner at Reservoir LLC 

Essentially, if you want Gen Zers to pay attention to you in the workplace, then you have to understand what makes them care. 

When business leaders look at Zoomers, they see a generation that isn’t afraid to publicly take powerful people to task, boycott organizations, or tackle difficult issues – especially when they arise in the workplace. This generation is adamant about what it desires for the future of work.  

In a Q&A with Dain Dunston, he explained just what exactly Generation Z needs from their working careers.  

Allwork.Space: What does Gen Z value the most out of a workplace culture? What do they value most from their leaders? 

Dain Dunston: They want to be seen. They want to feel that they belong, that their presence makes a difference. Particularly now.  

That Gen Z employee has options. She has friends who are digital nomads, making a living on their laptops from a beach in Thailand. That Gen Z employee wants to make a difference in her life.  

If your organization isn’t making that difference, know that 60% of your Gen Z team members are already scanning job opportunities on social media. 

They want meaning, a sense that what they are doing matters and that you recognize their presence and value their contribution. Not to do that is, in their view, the opposite of meaning.  

And what is the opposite of meaning? “De-meaning,” literally sucking the meaning out of their life. It’s not just the lack of meaning, it’s that they feel made less than if they themselves are not thought of as “meaning full.” 

Allwork.Space: How can leaders show authenticity through different forms of communication (speeches, meetings, emails, etc.)? 

We can’t show authenticity unless we actually are authentic, and so the mediums of communication are less important than the “way” of the communication.  

I had a talk a couple of years ago with David Abney when he was CEO of UPS and I asked him this question. He said that 110% percent of his job was communicating authentically with the people around him. From the moment he stepped out of his car in the garage to the moment he entered the lobby and stepped into the elevator, he felt he had to be intensely aware of the people around them, let them know he was aware of them and appreciated who they were. If he stood in the elevator and stared up at the floor numbers going by, that would be a failure of leadership. 

So how you’re communicating is less important than who you’re being. That said, keep it simple. Understand that your Gen Z team members have seen it all before, a million videos on YouTube and TikTok and can tell the difference between “production values” and “genuine values.” 

Allwork.Space: Why do leaders today need a high-level of self-awareness? 

I coach leaders to constantly ask themselves two questions: “Who am I being?” and “What do I want?” 

If you don’t know who you’re being, there’s nothing you can do to change it. Who you’re being isn’t some hidden, mystical state known only to your deepest self. The rest of the world can see it plainly on us. 

Asking who you are being changes who you are being. And in that state of presence, asking what you want changes what you want. From that state of radical self-awareness, you can have a profound impact on those around you – an impact that gives meaning to the tasks at hand. 

Allwork.Space: Why is authenticity so important to Gen Z in the workplace? Do Gen Z’s values differ at all from that of Millennials or Boomers? 

Every generation is susceptible to loveable fakes and frauds. Go back 170 years to President Lincoln’s message that “you can’t fool all the people all the time.” And yet we’re constantly surrounded by people (and bots!) trying to do just that.  

I think Gen Z has a sharper appreciation of how much they are surrounded by inauthentic people and their inauthentic attempts to communicate. 

I think every generation can distinguish someone who is an authentic leader from someone who isn’t. The difference is that Boomers may put up with it (particularly as they’re getting older) but younger generations feel they don’t need to. 

Gen Z have seen so much in their short lives. They grew up trying to sell an image of their “perfect life” on tweets and posts and then realized that everyone was doing the same thing.  

They would really like to work with someone older than them who can help them improve their self-awareness and do something really meaningful with their lives. 

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