Managing the Next Generation: The Effort Myth is in Your Workplace

Not too long ago Millennials were considered by some leaders to be the scourge of the workplace. However, by openly sharing their desires to have the workplace reimagined to meet their needs, schedules became more flexible, and benefits began to include lifestyle perks as well as health insurance and 401K’s. Gen Xer and Boomer workers initially scoffed at Millennial softness and their seeming lack of work ethic. Today Gen-Xers and Millennials have aged into becoming entrepreneurs, executives, and mid-level leaders. It’s now their turn to complain, and the newest workers, Gen-Z, also called Zoomers, are their target.

Many of my clients are both Gen-Xer leaders and parents. They grumble about generational challenges in their workplaces, as well as on the homefront. A common theme I hear, especially among parents who are also leaders at work, is that they would never hire someone like their own kid. This blustering, of course, masks fear that perhaps no one else will want to hire their child either. At the same time, these leaders have hope that someone else, armed with clear directives and performance indicators, might turn their Zoomer around before they do become workplace scourges. 

Over nearly four decades of work as a learning specialist and executive coach, I have had the wonderful experience of seeing thousands of adolescents and young adults grow beyond those fears of parents and supervisors who worry that they won’t amount to much. It is easy to believe that otherwise smart people are just not trying hard enough. That’s what I call the effort myth, the story we tell about how easily someone could turn things around if they only tried harder.

Managing the Next Generation

If you believe that gritty effort is the key to success, you are missing out on far more effective ways to motivate workers, especially Zoomers. Telling them to try harder may provide short-term energy and improvement, and for this reason it may be endorsed by leaders whose job could include pushing others to succeed in achievement-driven environments. However, focusing on effort can blind leaders to other more effective and longer-lasting solutions for improving workplace capacity.

I have learned from decades of direct experience with thousands of adolescents that there are many approaches to successful work outcomes. Often the key to success is not “just work harder.” Instead, it is extremely important to learn why people work better in some contexts than others, and what it feels like to them to strive and then succeed. When managers can better match employee learning and working preferences to performance needs, they can help to unleash motivation. That’s because it’s not how hard someone tries that leads to their success

Of course, effort is a necessary ingredient for work to be done successfully. However, trying harder is not sufficient by itself. Instead, it’s how someone tries harder that matters most. Great effort applied ineffectively, such as with low skill and ineffective organization, quickly becomes demotivating. In my best-selling book The Effort Myth: How to Give Your Child the Three Gifts of Motivation, I help readers reframe effort as the result of three gifts: Competence, Choices, and Self-Direction. Though it was written for parents about themselves and their children, I’ve been told over and over by readers who are also business leaders that the book has powerful lessons for the workplace.

Gen Z at Work

 In my roles as both a coach and a learning specialist, I have worked with all three generations, Gen X (born between roughly 1965 to 1980), Millennials (born between roughly 1981 to 1996), and Gen Z (born between roughly the late 1990’s to early 2010’s). They have been my clients when they were struggling students, as well as when they were new to the workplace. I have also seen the first two generations grow up and age into supervisory and leader roles. I have what may be a unique coaching niche as I often work with the same person or family at several different points in their lives: student, new hire, mid-life career changer, as well as when they have become frustrated and fearful parents

New hires of every generation have often described to me how the world of work actually seems to be like high school. There are long days requiring extended periods of focus. Fixed schedules with many competing demands can leave them feeling as if they have little control and not much time for the calm they crave and expected they’d have as adults.

As employees they may also need to exercise exhausting self-regulation and soft skills to navigate role clarity, office culture, and big life transitions that can lead to true independence. For recent grads, add to that the not-very-normal experience of coming of age during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is unsurprising that many Gen Z workers can feel overwhelmed in life and at work.

School is supposed to help prepare young people for the real world by providing them academic, problem solving, and social skills. The Gen Z cohort is entering the workplace after having spent between 12 and 18 years in formal education settings, two of which were quite disrupted during COVID-19. Gen Z hires often will have had little workplace experience before arriving at their first real job. Instead, for many of them, their lives have been spent prioritizing learning and school completion, at least some of which was delivered remotely.

While in some ways this cohort may be wholly unprepared for life at work, managers can find common ground with them by managing Gen Z expectations as both learners and workers.

Before assuming that new hires aren’t trying or worse–don’t care–you can bust the effort myth by considering that they may need The Three Gifts of Motivation, which I will say more about below. Before that, here are three of the most common questions leaders ask me about the effort of their Gen Z new hires:

  1. How did they get this far without basic workplace skills?
  2. Why don’t they take more initiative and responsibility?
  3. Is there a way to reward them that will reinforce workplace behaviors? 

Here are the answers to the questions above. You can find two chapters devoted to each gift in my best-seller, The Effort Myth.

Give Gift #1 Competence: Be sure they have all of the skills needed to do the job. 

  • Build previously overlooked discrete skills and help employee fill in gaps 
  • Create opportunities to develop new skills for achieving workplace results employees can care about

Give Gift #2 Choices: Build in acceptable options for personal preference. 

  • Offer structure and feedback for improving habits and making employee practices even more effective 
  • Encourage independent decision-making so employees can choose and change desired behaviors based on feedback

Give Gift #3 Self-direction: Make success a personalized and tangible experience.

  • Identify a variety of employee strengths and coach for personal as well as organizational growth
  • Encourage pride and accomplishment for its own sake beyond business metrics

Got questions? Let’s talk!

About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.

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