This week’s article was originally published by AnneMarie Hayek (Evans) for Forbes Business Council on November 9, 2021.  It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled The Power and Promise of Generation Z Part 2 that aired on Tuesday, November 30th, 2021

The past few years have been some of the most turbulent in living memory. My consulting work with dozens of companies has shown me that, beyond economic and political uncertainty, many business leaders are also afraid of Gen Z. What’s behind this fear?

It turns out there are several factors. When business leaders look at Zs, they see a generation that isn’t afraid to publicly take powerful people to task, or boycott organizations for misappropriating words and cultures. They fear the change Zs around the world demand. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they worry they’ll become Gen Z targets too.

Many of the business leaders I talk to are uncertain about how to interact with this volatile generation. This may be true for you, too. But to thrive in the world Zs are creating, you cannot be afraid of them. You must learn to engage with them on their terms, or you will be left behind.

The Myth Of “Cancel Culture”

It’s easy to read stories about Zs calling out powerful people and assume Zs are hellbent on creating “cancel culture.” However, that misses the point of what Zs are trying to do. Zs are focused on accountability, not canceling. Their goal is to get us to critically examine our culture and systems to find ways to improve them and make them more inclusive.

Through their devices and platforms like TikTok, Zs have had a front-row seat to the biggest issues facing our world since childhood. They witness the raw, gritty, diverse lived experiences of other Zs all over the world firsthand, every single day.

Because of this, they aren’t afraid to engage in difficult conversations among diverse perspectives. In my experience, Zs don’t self-select into echo chambers the way older generations tend to do online. They seek to engage broadly and are not shy about holding everyone (including each other) accountable.

Many organizations find this uncomfortable. If they want to succeed, though, companies must get used to it, because, unlike prior generations, Zs want to engage on a deep level. Zs view calling a company or an individual out as an invitation for a real, crucial discussion. They won’t settle for the trite, superficial sound bites prior generations often accepted. They know it can be uncomfortable, but they believe engaging in critical discourse is the only way to make things better for everyone.

The Upside To Engaging Zs

Gen Zs often feel dismissed because of their youth. But trivializing them is a mistake. Collectively, Gen Z is huge: They’ve surpassed Millennials in numbers. They’ve amplified their immense size with digital unity and an incredible ability to mobilize. And, despite having a median age of 17, Zs’ spending power is $143 billion.

Zs aren’t afraid to use their power to hold companies accountable. In 2019, for example, they called out Victoria’s Secret for failing to represent body and gender diversity. When then-CEO Leslie Wexner refused to make changes, the backlash affected Victoria’s Secret sales.

When companies get it right, though, the benefits are tremendous. Take Aerie, American Eagle’s underwear line: They are body-positive, featuring user-generated content of real customers with a range of bodies wearing their underwear. They are demonstrating the kind of inclusivity Zs value, and Zs have rewarded Aerie with 26 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth.

How To Engage With Zs

Understanding the importance of engaging with Zs is one thing. Knowing how to do that is something else entirely. Luckily, though, the process isn’t as difficult as it may seem.

First, give Zs meaningful representation in your company. Remember, they want a real seat at the table. Take the social platform company Triller, for example. It hired the successful 18-year-old social media creator Josh Richards as their Chief Strategy Officer. The team knew there was nobody better than a Z to help them compete with their main rival, TikTok. Their savvy move helped bring them exponential growth.

Second, engage your Z audience as co-creators. They’ve been creating on TikTok, YouTube, Minecraft and more since they were young, so they value unfettered creativity. It may feel strange at first, but giving up some control and letting them co-create your content will demonstrate how much you respect and value them and their input.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask Zs questions. Want to know how to use TikTok in a way that resonates with Zs? Ask them. Wondering how you can demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity without coming across as fake? Zs will tell you.

Working with an advisory board composed of Zs is an especially smart move, because it allows you to get their input on every decision you make. Engaging with Zs like this is a great way to avoid “tokenism” (the symbolic appearance of inclusion) and other similar missteps.

Embrace What Zs Have To Offer

There’s no question that Zs have a far different outlook than prior generations. However, once you realize Zs aren’t “cancel culture” zealots whose only goal in life is to tear our systems down, you can start engaging with them on a meaningful level.

Give them a seat at the table. Start involving them as co-creators with your brand and your products. And start asking them questions. Be willing to go below the surface and engage in deep, meaningful discourse with them. I promise you: Zs are not your enemy. There is no reason to fear them, and every reason to engage with and embrace them.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

AnneMarie Hayek is a cultural consultant, generational expert, and social agitator who deeply understands society’s evolutions. She founded and leads two companies, Global Mosaic and ZSpeak, with a passion for navigating the cultural movements shaping our world. AnneMarie and her team of experts have advised the world’s largest companies, organizations, governments, and presidential candidates for more than twenty-five years. She has a graduate degree from the University of Chicago and previously served as SVP and VP of Global Strategy at BBDO and Leo Burnett.

Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash


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