Research reveals employee needs, especially among Gen Z, are often at odds with leadership expectations — and how humor can bridge the gap to unlock organizational potential 

NEW YORK – June 28, 2023 – Business leaders today face greater workplace challenges than ever before, balancing the disparate needs of multiple generations in the workforce while engaging in a cultural power war often that pits them against employees. Recent in-depth research, published today by communications firm Peppercomm in its latest whitepaper, No Joke, reveals that there are significant gaps between what workers and leaders want, which are exacerbated by generational differences. The study further concluded that humor can be used to better connect teams, break down silos and drive more effective engagement. 

“Business leaders today are in a precarious position. They are navigating a world with varying hybrid work preferences and trying to align five generations in the workplace with starkly different traits,” said Jackie Kolek, EVP and chief innovation officer, Peppercomm. “As a result, they need to develop new strategies to promote resiliency and collaboration among employees. Using humor strategically and intelligently in the workplace can be an essential component to address these massive cultural challenges.”  

Peppercomm, in conjunction with The Comedy Arts Program at DePaul University, fielded an online study of 2,000 U.S. full-time employees along with qualitative interviews across multiple generations to better understand their needs and preferences at work. The results showed there are key areas where leaders and workers agree, but that there are major differences in their preferences that organizations need to bridge to grow successfully.  

Employees surveyed said they most want their leader to motivate them to do their best (selected by 62% of respondents), educate and guide them on their career journey (53%) and provide opportunities to learn and grow (50%). However, when asked what they want from their workforce, leaders said they value the ability to take and follow directions (53%), the ability to anticipate needs and take initiative (46%) and providing new ideas and ways of doing things (42%). 

Among Gen-Z workers, the desire for leaders to provide more motivation and guidance is even greater, with 65 percent of respondents in this demographic preferring a manager who is more of a mentor and teacher.  

Employees also said that communication (82%) was the most important element they desire from their leaders. They expect leadership to be transparent and to work alongside them. Alternatively, leaders are looking for employees to work more independently and follow directions.  

“While most business leaders who participated in the Peppercomm survey said they value their staff following instructions, Gen Z displays a clear belief that a leader should not expect their people to thrive in this directive model. Instead, they prefer collaboration; and they are highly attuned to sniffing out leaders who only pay lip service to co-creation without offering true mutuality,” said Liz Joynt Sandberg, a member of the Peppercomm Laughing Matters Council and head of The Comedy Arts program at DePaul University. 

Clearly, the old-school management approach of doling out orders and expecting everyone to follow will no longer work for the younger generation of employees. Leaders need a new playbook with a resource that can be found everywhere: humor.  

The research concluded that we are in the “golden age” of humor in the workplace, with executives, scientists and academics touting its role in driving positive, cross-generational productivity and innovation. No matter what generation we come from, it’s a biological fact that laughter stimulates alpha brainwaves that empower the mind to think in new ways. More humor and laughs translate into happier and more creative thinking and problem-solving – which is ultimately a boon for a business’ bottom line. As a result, organizations should look for ways to appropriately incorporate humor into their work environment and access the shared benefit of this approach for both leaders and employees.  

For more than a decade, Peppercomm has been offering strategic humor services to organizations of all types. This fall, HarperCollins will publish The ROI of LOL, written by Peppercomm CEO Steve Cody and Chief Comedy Officer Clayton Fletcher. The book offers a comprehensive blueprint for incorporating humor into any aspect of a business.