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Preparing young people for work today

5 min read


It goes without saying that younger, less experienced employees have different development needs compared to more seasoned employees. But that is amplified in the era of helicopter parenting. Because helicopter parents tend to hover over their children, protecting them from harm, structuring educational opportunities, and making decisions on their behalf, today’s younger employees tend to have less developed life skills.

While they are academically outstanding, kids today are growing up with less independence, resilience, and responsibility than in the past. This shows up at work as requiring more direction, reassurance, and attention than managers necessarily have time for.

Not to worry! As managers, we can help them develop these skills early on to help them be more independent and require less direction to get their tasks done. Here are three tips for managers to prepare young employees to work with less supervision.

1. Independence: Help them help themselves

Have you ever watched a young child learn to tie their shoes? It’s painfully difficult to stand back and encourage them as they pause to line up the laces just perfectly then slowly and deliberately place one lace over the other, take two hands to gather one lace into a loop, accidentally let go as they reach for the other lace, drop them both and start all over again — for the third time in a row. When you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, it can be nearly impossible to squelch the urge to jump in and tie their shoes for them.

Even though it may be agonizing at times, it is important to teach people how to do things and let them practice getting it right, rather than doing it for them. Even more important is not to let them rope you into doing it for them by saying they don’t know how to do it or they don’t do it as well as you do. Put on the brakes and take the time to teach them how and let them learn. The small investment of time and patience now will save you lots more later.

In building independence, the most important thing to teach people is how to make decisions. If you are satisfied that a person will make a good decision, you can let them do things on their own. There are many complex decision-making models out there, but, simply put, decisions are based on inputs and outputs. Instead of letting employees run to you to ask you what information they need, coach them how to think through what information is important to making a decision and how to get the information. Teach them to think through what outcomes could occur based on the actions they take. It may be slow at first, and they may make mistakes along the way, but they will learn to make decisions independently.

2. Resilience: Let them fail and help them recover (recover, not hover)

Mistakes will be made. That is a given. The question is how do you recover from them? Today’s younger employees have had less experience making mistakes because their parents have steering them in the right direction and clearing the hurdles in the path ahead of them. Employees who haven’t made mistakes haven’t built the calluses to get them through the rough patches.

As managers, it is important to help employees build up resilience. This means assigning challenging tasks, letting employees make mistakes, and helping them learn from failure. In other words, let your employees “skin their knees” on smaller tasks and build calluses to prepare them for bigger challenges. Sometimes this is easier said than done. It requires resilience from the manager too.

3. Responsibility: Hold them accountable

As tempting as it is to let the new person off the hook because they’re new, it doesn’t necessarily do them any favors. Despite what helicopter parents think, people tend to live up to the expectations placed on them. Don’t baby your employees even if that’s what they are accustomed to. Let them know early on that no one is going to swoop in and save them if they don’t get their work done.

To hold employees accountable, give clear expectations, develop a process for measuring results, and let them face the consequences of not delivering. Holding people accountable isn’t always the fun part of the manager’s job, but it is an effective way to help employees develop. Coincidentally, today’s younger employees really want to develop, so you may be doing them a favor after all.

In sum, if you want your employees to behave more independently, set the expectations to encourage that. Coach them on how to make decisions on their own, and how to bounce back when they make mistakes. Finally, keep them accountable for meeting commitments and deadlines and delivering high quality work.

Joanie B. Connell, Ph.D. is the founder of Flexible Work Solutions, a nationally recognized consulting firm that specializes in leadership assessment, development, and retention for all levels. Connell is the author of “Lessons from the Workplace: What Parents and Schools Are Missing,”  for release in late 2014. She also serves as a university professor teaching business and psychology students of all ages at a host of top tier high education institutions across the country.

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