Bruce Tulgan is the new Tom Peters.
Howard Jenkins, Chairman and CEO (fmr.), Publix Super Markets, Inc.

Teaching Respect for Context

Before any individual can possibly succeed at practicing good “followership,” he must develop a fundamental respect for context. He must learn to read and appreciate and accept and embrace adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs and leaders in an unfamiliar situation.

Indeed, Gen Zers are more likely to disagree openly with employers’ missions,
policies, and decisions and challenge employment conditions and established reward systems. They are less obedient to employers’ rules and supervisors’ instructions. They are less likely to heed organizational chart authority. Gen Zers respect transactional authority: control of resources, control of rewards, and control of work conditions.

There are really only two ways they can choose to go in a new job: Fit in or stand out. Too often, their inclination is to stand out.

Managers often tell us that today’s new young employees seem like they suffer from a fundamental lack of context. Yes, this is partly a function of youth: Young people have less life experience than older people and thus fewer points of reference to compare circumstances, people, and relationships. Context is all about these points of reference. So lack of context goes with being in the first adult life stages. But there is much more going on here. Our research indicates that Gen Zers have a very particular contextual bias when they enter an established institution with “adult” authority figures: For most Gen Zers, the most familiar context of adult supervision is their experience with parents and teachers and counselors – adult authority figures in highly supportive caretaking roles.

In fact, Gen Zers very much appreciate and respect age and experience. After all, they have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary level of nurturing in their relationships with adults – more than any generation in history. This does not result in a particular deference to authority or acquiescence to established norms and structures. Rather, they are quite accustomed to child-centric contexts in which their feelings, words, and actions have usually been accorded a huge amount of attention by adult authority figures. Their relationships with adult authority figures have largely been defined in terms of the dedication, commitment and service of the adults toward the children, not the other way around. Their preferences have been given much weight, and their opinions have been given much airtime in discussions. Misbehavior has been diagnosed instead of punished. Their accomplishments have been celebrated with glee.

As a result, Gen Zers enter the workplace with the expectation that they will now be cared for, rather than being ordered around. Of course, the problem is that, in this context, you are paying them, not the other way around.

The good news is that Gen Zers understand transactional relationships. They know what it means to be the customer. They might just have to be reminded that, in this situation, they are not the customer. Their employer is the customer. As their manager, you are not claiming to be superior to them in any kind of absolute sense. You are not claiming to be higher on the “food chain” in the cosmos. You just need to make it clear to them:

Just in this context: In this role in this job in this chain of command in this organization. I’m the leader. You are the follower. If you want to belong here, this is how you understand, accept, embrace, and adapt to your place in the structure, rules, customers, and leadership here.

Teaching Gen Zers to develop respect for context means getting them to realize that work is situational and his role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with him. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if he were not, and they determine the context of any situation.

The easiest way to understand context is to consider extreme examples of it: dire illness, hurricanes, war, etc.. In any of these contexts, the possibilities are limited, and so is the scope of an individual’s potential role. In these contexts, certain expectations, hopes, expressions, and actions are inappropriate. While it is relatively easy to be sensitive to extreme contexts, it is often difficult for people, Gen Zers in particular, to be sensitive to more subtle contexts, particularly when they walk into new situations. Every situation has a context that limits possibilities and limits the scope of an individual’s potential role. The big mistake leaders and managers often make is allowing Gen Zers to remain in their vacuum.

The key is making it clear from the outset that, if they want to be set up for success in this situation, step one is learn to read and adapt to the existing structure, rules, customs and leaders in this situation.

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