Employee Wellness

Want Gen Z Talent To Stick Around? Help Them Access Their Upper Brain

Are you setting younger employees up to thrive—or are you shutting them down, burning them out, and ultimately driving them away? Michael Frisina says it all depends on which part of their brain leaders are triggering

Michael E. Frisina’s book, Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence, helps younger employees learn to access their upper brain so they can thrive in their workplace.

Chicago, IL (February 2023)—There’s a lot of buzz around what Gen Z employees expect. No wonder. They’re the largest generation now and will soon hit the workforce in a big way. Most experts agree that beyond fair pay (which is just the price of entry), Gen Zers want an empathetic workplace that puts people before profits. They want a sense of community and belonging. They want employers that value diversity and inclusion, allow flexibility and work/life balance, develop them, prioritize their mental health, and provide meaningful work that advances social justice—or, at the very least, doesn’t detract from it.

It’s a tall order—not to mention an urgent one in light of Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell’s recent remarks on America’s structural labor shortage—and many employers don’t know where to start. Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has an unexpected suggestion: Help younger employees learn to access their upper brain.

“If you look at this Gen Z ‘wish list’ in a holistic way, you can see young employees crave a work experience that’s enriching and energizing,” says Frisina, who, along with Robert Frisina, wrote Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95). “They put purpose before passion. They want strong relationships with leaders who not only support them but genuinely care for them. They want to belong. They want to thrive.

“All of this requires employees to operate in their upper brain—and that requires leaders to behave in ways that allow it to happen,” he says.

First things first: What is the upper brain? In short, it’s the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls critical reasoning, judgment, growth, creativity, and performance. The lower brain, on the other hand, is built for survival. It helps us respond to external threats, both real and imagined. When the lower brain is triggered, we have a mental reaction (confusion, loss, doubt), an emotional reaction (fear, anger, disgust), and a physical reaction (fight, flight, or freeze).

“Leaders often behave in ways that trigger this fear/survival mode in their employees,” says Frisina. “When this happens over and over, they get stuck in their lower brain. This is the antithesis of engagement. Morale falls, motivation falters, performance suffers, and employees quickly become burned out. No one wants to work in these conditions, and they shouldn’t have to—but younger employees in particular won’t stand for it.”

As Frisina emphasizes again and again, individual leader behavior is the single most important predictor of a team’s performance (far more so than technical competency). The leader as an “expert” who directs a team to execution (the old paradigm) is now relevant only in times of exceptional crisis. Most daily operational challenges require the leader to function as a “coach”—assisting team members in their own critical thinking, assessment, and decision-making in building consensus prior to execution.

The good news is when leaders become aware of what they’re doing (and not doing), they can shift their thinking—and ultimately their behavior—in healthy ways. They learn how to encourage and coach, set clear expectations, and make deep connections. All of this transforms the culture to one in which employees can more readily access their upper brain. When this happens, employees (Gen Zers, yes, but also ALL employees) benefit in many ways:

  • Leader/employee relationships improve. Because leaders are better able to make authentic one-on-one connections, people feel genuinely cared for, nurtured, challenged, and invested in. This is true regardless of differences in race, culture, gender, orientation, and so forth, notes Frisina. “In my mind, DEI issues are symptoms of the lack of effective leadership,” he says. “If we focus on creating effective leaders, these symptoms disappear in the dynamic culture these leaders create.”
  • Fundamental human needs like trust, compassion, security and stability, and hope get met. Frisina says hope is the biggest need of all. It is the absence of hope that most profoundly undermines mental health and resilience.
  • Engagement improves. Frisina points out that engaged employees—far more so than merely “satisfied” ones—love their jobs, seek continuous improvement, and feel a sense of meaning, value, and purpose in their work.
  • People start learning and growing and living up to their potential. This deeply matters to Generation Z, who prioritize development and career advancement opportunities.
  • Mental and emotional well-being improve. This is vital for Zers, who are members of the most stressed generation due to COVID’s disruptions to their lives, economic upheaval, political unrest, the constant onslaught of “bad news” from social media, and more.
  • Interpersonal skills grow. “Younger employees are the first generation raised entirely in the digital age,” notes Frisina. “This comes with the unintended consequence of not knowing how to create deep, meaningful connections that social media relationships lack. When leaders instigate these authentic connections, employees respond in kind, honing their own relationship skills in the process.”
  • Employees feel a renewed sense of purpose. This is more than just “passion” says Frisina: “Passion is fueled by emotions,” he says. “It ebbs and flows. Purpose is fueled by meaning and value. Neuroscience research confirms that constancy of purpose—what you care about—will keep you ‘in it to win it’ when life circumstances get very hard.”
  • All of the above benefits boost performance—individual and organizational—and everyone reaps the rewards.

The Greatest Gift You Can Give

If you look at this Gen Z ‘wish list’ in a holistic way, you can see young employees crave a work experience that’s enriching and energizing...

Helping people access and operate in their upper brain is the greatest gift you can give them, says Frisina. It pays lifelong dividends. It’s especially valuable for young Gen Zers starting out in their first job. Why? Because if they’re under 25, their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. Helping them develop it the right way so that effective behaviors are engrained early benefits everyone.

“The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all aspects of what we call executive functions,” he explains. “These include working toward a defined goal, predicting outcomes, planning, decision-making, moderating social behavior, and mitigating behavior choices against future consequences. When team members can do these well, of course it benefits the organization, but also the individual employee. These are life skills everyone must master.”

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? When you teach Gen Z employees to tap into their upper brain and maximize its functions early on, you set them up for a lifetime of success. What’s more, because they’re getting a fulfilling work experience, they’re more likely to stick around for a while.

“These days, employers must use every tool at hand to retain good employees,” notes Frisina. “A solid understanding of how to leverage brain science is a powerful tool indeed. When someone lands in a place where they can excel professionally, feel a sense of belonging, and be excited about their work—well, they’d have to think long and hard about leaving.”




About the Authors
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effective­ness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.
Robert W. Frisina, MA, is a principal in the Frisina Group and executive director at the Center for Influential Leadership with primary responsibility for program development and research in leadership effectiveness and organizational development. He is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and served as a civil affairs spe­cialist with the Second Brigade Combat Team in the 101st Airborne Division in southern Afghanistan.
About the Book
Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.