4 Ways to be a Great Leader to Teenage Employees

I was so excited for my first job; I was hired nearly on the spot. I was thrilled to finally be earning my own money and to get some good job experience.

Then came my first day on the job. My new coworkers had told me how “caring” our boss was, and I quickly discovered why they were using sarcastic tones when saying so. We were all micromanaged, and there were many times I left work in tears after I made small mistakes which resulted in my boss becoming very upset with me. There were also times when I was in tears after being corrected and then dismissed in ways that made me lose confidence and hate coming to work. It didn’t take long at all for me to vow to myself that I would get out of there as soon as possible. What I had originally perceived to be a pathway to some sort of freedom and opportunity, was now a place I dreaded. I didn’t feel like I had a voice.

I always wondered if anyone saw the way my manager treated me, but no one ever said anything, which made me think this must be normal and how all managers treat their employees. After six months in that position, I had an opportunity to switch jobs. You bet I took it - I would have done anything to get away from a manager who made me feel so devalued and dispensable.

Even though this experience was incredibly difficult, it helped me grow exponentially. I learned to anticipate how my manager would see things so that I could adapt my behavior. Also, working at this job seriously taught me the meaning of having a strong work ethic in the face of adversity. However, I wouldn’t wish the experience upon anyone. If only my manager had taken the time to invest in us, to make us feel appreciated, and treat us as valuable to the mission of the organization.

Since that first job, I’ve worked in various service industry settings throughout high school and the beginning of college, and I’ve experienced many different management styles. I think I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. As a part of the generation referred to as Gen Z (also called the “iGen” or my personal favorite, “Zoomers”), I’d like to share some insight into what I believe it takes to become a great leader to younger employees.

1. Invest in your teenage employees and coach them

According to Forbes, Gen Z craves more of a mentor/coach role from their leaders versus a traditional “manager” role. This has been true in my experience as well. We prefer to be treated as unique individuals and don’t want to be put into a box because of our age. What works for one employee will not work for every employee.

Since we grew up with the internet, we are used to the internet helping us troubleshoot and solve problems in our own way. Everyone has a distinct learning style and style of work. We Zoomers want to be invested in and to have a good relationship with our superiors. I have experienced many managers who neglect the opportunity to invest in their employees. It communicates a lack of gratitude and can create an environment of fear.

As a leader, you can’t approach teen employees with the attitude that they won’t be here for long, so there’s no point in investing. Everyone wants and deserves to feel heard, seen and valued at work, so investing in your employees can be the first step to communicating that to them. Having a support system at work can make a huge difference in a teen’s life, especially if they’re not getting that from anywhere else. That alone can make someone work their hardest and give their best effort.

2. Ask your teenage employees for feedback

While most of us aren’t in management positions yet, we are still working long-enough shifts to be able to pick up on patterns and have ideas about how to improve processes. During one of my jobs in food service, my manager came up with a new system for distributing food. I found it very hard to adjust to, and frankly, saw many problems with it. I approached my manager with some constructive feedback and he said it made him rethink the entire idea. Shortly after, he made minor changes to the new process. Though he didn’t change everything or even scrap the idea, I felt heard and appreciated. Even if you don’t receive the best feedback from your employees, you have an opportunity to start a dialogue with them while encouraging their feedback.

3. Be your teenage employees' champion

While most people tend to have a bias to think the best of their own generations and assume the worst about other generations, the best managers are those who assume the best about their teenage employees. Teens often get a bad rap due to the poor decisions or actions of a few, so challenge yourself to reject stereotypes that might influence the way you think of and treat your youngest employees. Look for your hard workers (especially among your teen employees) and call out their victories and best work.

I cannot stress enough that feeling valued is the key to employee retention. If an employee doesn’t feel valued, they can and will find somewhere where they do. Everyone has a different way of feeling valued, and for some it’s being cheered on and thanked. A simple “thank you” goes a long way. It communicates a lot when leaders neglect to thank their employees or call out their strengths. I definitely felt this way at my first job; I never received any positive or encouraging feedback.

4. Work alongside your teenage employees

This is my biggest piece of advice to employers working with teens. Any leader has my immediate respect if they are in business clothes and they jump in to help when it’s busy. The best managers I’ve had have done so. These managers don’t take the rush (or any time, really) as an opportunity to micromanage, but instead they take it as an opportunity to position themselves as accessible and approachable.

Stepping in to help and being part of the team is the key to being a good leader. You lead by example and begin to see things from your employees’ points of view. You can use that experience to set and communicate expectations to your employees, thus making them feel invested in. When your employees feel invested in, heard and helped, the supervisor-employee relationship is far better, because they begin to feel valued and truly part of the team.

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