Ask any manager; having an employee who takes the initiative to go beyond the pale to deliver results is a relatively rare privilege. For most leaders, inspiring team members to look beyond the confines of their daily to-do lists is a perpetual challenge; even when given the authority to pursue new ideas, most associates prefer to stay firmly in their comfort zone.
That trend, however, may be on the verge of change. In recent years, Millennials have entered the workforce in droves — with Gen Z right on their heels. These young workers have a reputation for being bold speakers who are willing to step up and air new ideas, even when unasked.
For many, including myself, the shift towards a workplace culture where taking initiative is not only encouraged but expected is a welcome one. However, some leaders have reasonable concerns about that change.
What might occur if an overconfident team member takes a project in the wrong direction without permission? What would their decision to overstep their authority cost their team, the project, or the business as a whole?
Authority is important. Every team member needs to have the power to achieve their assigned outcomes; however, it is equally important that they know when to bring their ideas to their managers for review and approval before they take action. That said, outlining authority isn’t always as simple as dictating what an employee can and cannot do — especially during periods of workplace-cultural transition.
While I firmly believe that Millennials’ and Gen Z’s increasing prominence in the workforce will prompt a more proactive business culture, the shift does warrant a discussion about how leaders will define authority — and what it will mean to manage a generation of high-initiative, vocal workers.
Culture Shock: Understanding the Friction Over Millennial & Gen Z Participation at Work
As of this year, millennials constitute nearly half of the American workforce. They carry a reputation of being brash, outspoken, and overly confident; they tend to speak up even when they are not well-versed about the subject at hand. These qualities have caused some workplace fission between the generations. Baby boomers, in particular, are often shocked by Millennials’ drive to contribute ideas immediately.
As Gen Z enters the workforce, they will move swiftly to lead since they grew up in a time of turmoil. They will take charge, create constancy to help keep everything in line. As management researcher Shilpa Gaidhani noted in a 2019 report on the matter, “Gen Z will give meaning to work in a way that Gen Y has talked about but been incapable of achieving.”
In a 2016 article for Forbes, contributor Kaytie Zimmerman explains that this difference in mentality stems from how the older and younger generations were told to contribute. She writes: “As baby boomers were making their entry into the workplace, they were trained to ‘wait their turn,’ ‘earn their keep,’ and get years of experience under their belt before they expected to contribute their opinion on projects at work.”
In contrast, she explains, Millennial children were pushed to be collaborative in school. They often worked in groups and were graded on their willingness to participate. As a result, Millennial workers often have a strong drive to contribute to a broader effort. Younger workers need to know that their work has meaning and that their voices are heard; having input into the decision-making process makes them feel engaged and valued.
Millennials’ and Gen Z’s drive to contribute to decision-making conversations can make establishing authority challenging. As one recent paper from Ken Blanchard Companies explained, younger workers “tend to view coworkers, and even their managers, as people with whom to collaborate — they do not like to feel subordinate to someone, but rather prefer to be treated as a colleague who has something to contribute.”
Establishing authority is a clear necessity. However, if managers dictate hard lines around what employees can and cannot contribute to, this younger generation of workers may feel undervalued and disengage from their work. Research has demonstrated that increased rates of disengagement often lead to decreased productivity and higher turnover.
Thus, the problem becomes one of not only clarifying authority but doing so in a way that won’t actively drive Millennials and Gen Z away. Striking that balance will be a necessary challenge, as leaders will need to find a way to take advantage of younger workers’ willingness to take initiative without allowing them to act beyond their decision-making power.
Understanding Variations of Authority
The first step to clarifying and framing a Millennial- and Gen Z-mindful approach to authority is understanding the concept of authority as a whole.
Broadly speaking, authority spans three sub-sections: people decisions, operating decisions, and money decisions. The labels are largely self-explanatory; however, the degree to which a team member can apply their authority varies.
There are two degrees of authority: complete, and with approval. With complete authority, an individual has the authority to both make decisions and take action. When an employee has authority with approval, however, they must seek confirmation from someone else before they act.
Consider middle managers as an example. While most employees at this level can direct those under their supervision and contribute to promotion or firing decisions, they typically do not have a final, independent say in the latter matters. Thus, we can say that they have complete authority to direct employees, but only authority with approval when it comes to promotions and firings.
Before leaders sit down with their employees to establish authority, they need to know precisely how much independence a given team member needs to accomplish their assigned role. If employees have too little authority, they may feel overly restricted and unable to perform simple tasks without seeking unnecessary approval. If they have too much, they may push their projects in the wrong direction and make costly mistakes. Leaders need to develop a clear understanding of each role and the decision-making power it requires.
Addressing Authority in a Productive Way
After leaders develop a clear understanding of how much authority their employees need to fulfill their roles, they need to hold individual meetings with each team member and talk through the extent and limitations of their decision-making power.
However, these meetings should not be a one-way conversation about what an employee can and cannot do. Instead, leaders should frame the exchange within a collaborative context that can encourage a free flow of communication. This approach will cast authority limitations not as a wall to action, but as an opportunity for conversation and further growth.
Authority is always necessary — but the approach that leaders take to establish it never needs to be dictatorial. If team leaders position themselves as being receptive to new ideas, they can encourage employee initiative and innovation in a way that is both safe for the business and mindful of younger employees’ need to be heard. Millennials’ and Gen Z’s willingness to take action will be incredibly beneficial for companies in the future — if only leaders can learn to make full and safe use of it.