Take chances and copy Gen Z: Five secrets of workplace success

There is no quick path to desk-based nirvana but there are things we can do to improve our experience at work

What is the secret of a happy and fulfilled working life? For most of us muddling through corporate careers as best we can, the answer remains elusive.

As host of the FT’s Working It podcast, I’ve talked to hundreds of experts about the question and I’ve learned a lot from colleagues, which I have tried to distil in a book. It looks at how to navigate that messy world of work, covering everything from scoping out what shiny-sounding potential employers are really like to building your “brand” without the cringe factor and dealing with unpleasant team members or oblivious bosses.

There is no quick path to desk-based nirvana. But here are my top five insights about surviving at work.

Look in the mirror before you criticise your boss

In our minds, the workplace operates like a parallel, fantasy realm. Like a 1970s Dr Who episode, it is low budget but removed from Actual Life, a place where we are better versions of ourselves. The truth is less magical. We go to work trailing an unwieldy suitcase filled with recent emotional baggage, a lifetime of disappointments and a few childhood relics.

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Some of that baggage is helpful neither to you, nor your colleagues. It could even sabotage your career. But you can do your best to get over it. Gabriella Braun, director of workplace relations consultancy, Working Well, says a psychoanalytic concept called “the third position” can help. It involves stepping outside ourselves to view our interactions as an observer would.

I’ve been adopting the third position and though results have been mixed, it is a huge, and useful, mindset shift. Focusing on your “behaviour as others see it”, as Braun says, helps reveal what you, and your baggage, are bringing to tense or difficult encounters, so you can respond to them with more insight and understanding.

Everyone wants to be heard but no one wants to listen

If you haven’t been subjected to corporate guff about leaders listening to staff, where have you been for the past four years? The pandemic ushered in an era of more empathetic bosses. Or, rather, bosses who tried to be more empathetic.

It is sometimes hard to listen carefully in a work context, especially when there’s a power imbalance. For busy managers, every meeting has an objective and when employees bring up other concerns, they’re derailing the mission to meet it. Yet better listening could improve pretty much everything at work.

Make a start on listening better by refusing to think about what you are going to say next. Focus on what your team member or boss is saying. Take that in. And ask questions.

Charles Duhigg, author of Supercommunicators, recommends a technique called “looping for understanding”. First you ask a question. Then you repeat back – in your own words – what you heard. Third, you ask your colleague if you got it right. Doing so, Duhigg says, gives your colleague permission to say “there’s something you missed”, and allows everyone to acknowledge they’ve been understood. That, he says, “feels wonderful”.

Gen Z are showing us the future of work

The impact of Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) in the workforce will be huge: probably the most significant shift for decades.

I’m not dismissing the importance of AI here. I believe the human side of work will become more important as machines free people from administrative tasks. And Gen Z are different from the rest of us. Really different.

The popular idea that younger people want to cancel managers for wrong-think is simplistic, but many Gen-Zs do expect accountability for what they see as mistakes. They are also open about mental health struggles which are widespread: a recent report found one in three 18- to 24-year-olds report a mental health condition.

They also exert what Edelman’s employee experience chairwoman, Cydney Roach, calls a “gravitational pull” on the workforce. Everyone else will adapt to Gen Z rather than the other way round, she says: old norms have to be retired.

Keeping younger workers well and engaged, then, is going to be a big investment, and the future for managers may be in overseeing personal wellbeing as well as professional development. Few employers have clocked the size, scope and seismic impact of this change.

Managers are made, not born

I regret to say that, before writing about work, I did not link good managers with training and support. I think I believed in a management “gene” that meant the naturally sympathetic and understanding became great team leaders, while dogmatic, less emotionally intelligent types became bad managers.

I was wrong. Anyone can become a good manager. But without the right preparation, backup and development, nobody can.

Despite this, about 80 per cent of the eight million managers in the UK have no formal training – they are “accidental managers” as the Chartered Management Institute coins it.

If that’s you, you are not alone. But nor should you accept it. Demand training, support or a coach, or you will be floundering. And your team will miss out on the benefits of great management, something the institute has shown significantly boosts productivity and engagement.

Take more chances: you’ll regret it if you don’t

When big opportunities come along, you may have to do more work to make the most of them.

I knew writing a book would be a weekend project. I also knew that wasn’t sustainable. But it didn’t need to be: it was only for a limited time. You have to decide how much is too much but I suggest if the extra work is intrinsically fulfilling, for your own advancement, interest or enjoyment, then it’s worth considering.

Doing a ton of extra stuff because someone asks, for no recognition or career growth? Just say no (although I realise this is not always possible).

You may do well to remember the advice of author Daniel Pink: as we age, we are most likely to regret what we don’t do. Career regrets, Pink told the FT, show that “we should have a slight bias for action”, to “just try stuff and be less worried about the risk”.

I love that sentence. It might just be the best thing I’ve learned. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

The Future-Proof Career: Strategies for thriving at every stage is published by Pavilion Books.