Home Featured Gen Z’s biggest skills gap that is fueling their social anxiety at work: managing ambiguity

Gen Z’s biggest skills gap that is fueling their social anxiety at work: managing ambiguity

Gen Z’s biggest skills gap that is fueling their social anxiety at work: managing ambiguity


Despite an uneven job market, projections indicate that companies plan to hire 4% more graduates in 2023 than in 2022, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers report. While employers continue recruiting graduates, many are unaware of the specific skills gaps Gen Z faces–and what managers can do to help.

Businesses are adapting to multiple changes by reducing their hierarchy to enable faster decision-making, on-the-job learning, and collaborative problem-solving. As workplaces become more agile, how we work will also become less formal and organized. In this new world of work, managing ambiguity (solving problems that don’t have a clear-cut solution, working on complex tasks with a high degree of novelty, and creative thinking on the fly) is a fundamental skill that all graduates need.

A new survey of 2,000 participants aged 18 to 24 in the United Kingdom and the United States found that 85% of graduates believe social skills (like influencing, persuading, and including others) are essential to advancing in their workplace–yet 40% of graduates state they received no training, onboarding, or support from their line manager to develop these skills.

Additionally, over a third (33%) of 18-24-year-olds surveyed are not confident making decisions at work without all the necessary information. Younger people are used to getting instant, decisive answers to questions with a quick Google search rather than grappling with the unknown and making decisions with limited information or learning through trial and error like previous generations. Consequently, graduates’ ability to manage ambiguity is decreasing at a time when workplaces are becoming more informal.

This misalignment ensures the graduate skills gap remains firmly in place–with detrimental consequences.

Ambiguous interactions are fueling social anxiety

Learning to manage how your work gets done is an essential skill every graduate needs. Most of us don’t just go to work and complete a list of tasks–we have to work with others to do our jobs.

In the new world of work, graduates have to manage the ambiguity inherent in social interactions–knowing how to interpret other people’s feelings and intentions. The study found that 30% of respondents aged 18 to 24 reported increased stress due to ambiguous relationships at work. Alarmingly, nine in 10 graduates said they avoid in-person events because of social anxiety, and nearly a quarter are uncomfortable speaking up in team meetings and sharing their ideas.

Given the critical need to manage ambiguity in social interactions, it makes sense that research finds people who have positive attitudes toward uncertainty and embrace informal interactions are more creative, perform to a higher standard, and make for better leaders.

To bridge the ambiguity skills gap, start with managers

When doing their jobs, Gen Zers want to avoid doubt and vagueness to a greater extent than previous generations. Consequently, graduates rely on their managers for guidance, direction, and explicit feedback.

When managers don’t provide clarity about working hours, deadlines, performance assessments, or expectations, it can become a significant source of stress. The survey found that 75% of graduates feel their relationship with their manager creates stress for them at work. Addressing this issue directly with a line leader can be difficult for graduates, given that over a third (36%) feel uncomfortable having difficult conversations at work.

Managers need to close the gap by providing ongoing coaching and feedback that equip graduates to do their jobs without having all the information, respond to constant changes at work, and learn how to adapt their communication style to connect with different people.

Companies can provide leaders with upward coaching to help them better support graduates with participating in meetings, working groups, and social situations. Organizations can also pair graduates with more experienced team members when working on tasks or problems without clear solutions to help them gain comfort with managing ambiguity.

Millennials will soon make up most of the workforce, with Gen Z quickly following suit. In a work environment rife with automation, artificial intelligence, virtual work, and increased demographic employee diversity, graduates must learn to manage ambiguity. It will be critical to their success–and ability to enjoy work. 

Michelle P. King, Ph.D., is the author of How Work Works: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself, and an award-winning academic and globally recognized expert on inequality and organizational culture.

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