8 Ways to Motivate Teenage Employees to Do Great Work

Managing teenage employees is one thing. Motivating them is quite another. It seems like you’re always trying to get them off of their phone or to stop standing around and use downtime better.  

Before we jump into the eight ways you can motivate your teenage employees, let’s run through a quick list of broad statements about teenagers to better understand the reason behind their behavior:

  1. They want to belong while still feeling like a unique individual.
  2. They don’t like to feel powerless or controlled while still wanting to feel safe.
  3. They are trying to figure out who they are, and are picking up cues from peers, culture, and situations around them.
  4. They don’t easily hand out respect, though they can easily withdraw it.

Knowing these characteristics about teens is only the start. Remember this: you must always be motivating.

Teenage workers aren’t generally going to find work to do on their own. They aren’t going to know the proper work attitudes that adults assume everyone knows. In order for motivation to work, you have to do it all the time.

1. Give them a voice at the table.

Teenagers are struggling to figure out where they fit, and feeling like they don’t have a voice or say in things that affect their lives makes them powerless. They aren’t going to contribute to a system that leaves them powerless.

  • Communicate in a group. Have times when your teenage employees can talk with you as a group. Staff meetings, shift meetings — any time will do. Let them talk about the challenges and ideas they have at work. Ask questions, encourage them to come to conclusions on their own, and listen more than you talk.
  • Communicate one-on-one. If your one-on-one communication is simply doling out shifts, approving time-off requests, or discipline, you’re missing out on the value of simply talking to employees as individuals. Ask questions about how the job is going, if they have any ideas or suggestions — you’re not trying to be creepy, but not everyone speaks up in a group setting. Personal communication gives everyone a chance to be heard.
  • Provide “wishbone” scenarios. Some decisions are simply a matter of deciding between option A or option B, with neither having a huge impact on your business. Let your teenage workers weigh in, and take their advice. Look for decisions you have to make that aren’t crucial, and let them decide.
  • Be sure you act on their voice. It’s insulting to have someone ask your opinion but never actually take your suggestions. While you can’t do everything your teenage employees want, you should regularly enact some of their ideas on a manageable scale. If they get the sense their ideas aren’t really being heard, they’ll close down.

Any time an employee’s voice is encouraged, heard, and acted on, they feel like they have more ownership and are motivated to work harder. They matter to the job, and the job matters to them.

2. Show them what they get out of it.

Yes, younger generations today make purchases and act on behalf of good causes. But even the most altruistic teen is motivated by what’s in it for her, even though she might not be aware of it herself.

This isn’t about selfishness, but rather, teenagers needing to know why something you ask them to do affects them. If it doesn’t seem to have any effect or impact on them, it’s hard to get motivated to do it.

  • Show them how the task affects them. For example, if a teenager doesn’t wash the dishes, there are no clean dishes next time he wants to eat. That’s a motivation. But if the counters aren’t wiped down, it probably doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, so there’s no real motivation to do that chore.
  • Pay them fairly with a chance for increase. A wage is the most obvious way to show them that their work has value to them. Pay them well with a chance for a raise based on how well they push themselves.
  • Work with their schedule. Allowing for a flexible work schedule helps teenage employees see that work doesn’t have to always get in the way of the rest of their life.
  • Give them instant and desirable incentives. When you catch a teenage employee doing something good, have a small but immediate reward you can give them on the spot. You should also have a larger incentives program that rewards good work and responsibility. Just be sure the incentives you use are meaningful to teenagers, something they actually want. If you’re not sure, consider asking them what kind of rewards they would appreciate. Not only will it take the guesswork out of it, but you’ll have also given them a voice in the process.

With a job, of course, the most obvious impact of every task you ask of your teenage employees is that if they don’t do it, they may lose their job. But try to find other less threatening ways to show how the tasks you give them tie into overall job success and well-being.

If we know that something will affect us, we’re all more motivated to make sure the job gets done.

3. Make success an achievable goal.

Tasting success is a huge motivator. Never tasting success is a great way to kill any desire to even try.

When there are tasks you need your teenage employees to do that aren’t mundane or that could be challenging, find a way to help them succeed.

  • Provide great training. Make sure your teenage employees are well-trained on every aspect of their job. Never ask them to do something they haven’t been trained for.
  • Provide clear expectations. Be sure they know what you expect and consider a successful result, otherwise they won’t know what to aim for.
  • Use the buddy system. For some jobs, having two employees do the work is better than one. There is safety in numbers, and they can both share the success. Bonus: it fosters a sense of group loyalty, which is something important for today’s generation of teens.
  • Pay attention to their success. If the employee succeeds, be sure to let them know you noticed. Reward them if it calls for it.
  • Have tasks that are challenging. Success is a better reward if the challenge was greater. Have some tasks that aren’t mundane, even if that means having a manager or more experienced employee give the teenage worker a chance at something they normally wouldn’t get to try to do.

A job that sets someone up for failure will never motivate. But getting a taste for success definitely will.

4. Make failure an option, but not a scary one.

The flip side to that success is failure. No one likes to fail, but teenagers find it even more difficult, especially when it happens in front of their peers.

  • Make discipline private. Never shame, embarrass, or discipline them in front of their peers if possible. Talk to your teenage employees about specific problems or failures in private where they won’t lose face.
  • Focus on learning rather than punishment. Buffer the blow of failure somewhat by deflecting it into a learning experience and not into punishment.
  • Stop reminding them of the failure. Let them experience the consequence of a failure, and then, when that is over, stop lecturing them about the incident or reminding them (through word or actions that indicate you don’t trust them to not do it again) that you remember the error. Take the stance that they learned from failure unless it keeps happening repeatedly.
  • Don’t yell at them. This has the opposite effect, and ends up creating either fear or a tendency towards passive aggressiveness.

Knowing they won’t get in trouble every time the make a mistake is a motivator to try. If you figure that your boss is just going to yell at you if you screw up, you will go out of your way to do the minimal possible. The minimal amount of work possible, after all, also means you have less chance to fail.

Both failure and success are how all of us learn, and helping your teenage employees experience both in a safe way builds self-esteem and also self-motivation.

5. Be patient in all situations.

Teenagers require patience. Teenage employees even more so.

Be patient when they don’t know how to do basic tasks you think you shouldn’t have to train them to do. Be patient if you have to repeatedly work with them to correct a problem. Be patient when you find yourself needing to call them out on a failure.

Don’t yell. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t say something you’ll regret. Don’t make hasty decisions in the moment. Don’t talk about them in a mocking way to other adults.

Teenagers work best when they aren’t scared and when they aren’t being passive aggressive towards you out of anger. Losing your cool is a surefire way to encourage attitude problems in your employees.

6. Let them feel as if they have autonomy.

In this age of helicopter parenting, giving teenage employees a chance to be autonomous is a new experience for them. It’ll be scary for many, yes, but still an exciting opportunity.

  • Watch for independent workers. Keep an eye out for employees who seem to be able to work well on their own, who can find work to keep them busy during downtimes without you nagging at them. These are good candidates for more autonomy.
  • Look for ways you can step back. Are there tasks, duties, or job positions in which less managing is required? Create a position or situation and let those independent workers have a chance to shine.
  • Avoid the habit of unnecessary nagging. The key word here is unnecessary. There are some situations where you have to remind employees to do the work. Just be able to spot when you don’t have to do that. We all tend to tune out the noise we don’t need, and you don’t want your nagging voice to be that noise.
  • Train for autonomy. Your training programs should always have autonomy in mind. Train for specific tasks, and also train them to be able to observe other work they can do on their own without being asked to do it.

Why does giving them a chance for autonomy help? For some teenagers, having autonomy means you have more invested in the outcome. That’s a real motivator.

Of course, not all teenager employees will rise to the occasion the same way. And even for those who are motivated by a taste of independence, clear boundaries and expectations still apply.

7. Help them get past the difficulty in starting.

Sometimes a lack of motivation is really just an uncertainty on how to get started on a task or project. It’s easier to avoid doing something rather than admit you don’t know how to do it. This is especially true for teenagers who don’t want to appear foolish in front of others. Sometimes they just need a little help getting started.

  • Make expectations clear. Be as direct and specific as you can be when communicating what you expect of them in their job. It’s easier to start a project when you know what the expected outcome should look like. You can adjust up and down (i.e. more details or less) as you learn each teenage employee’s work abilities.
  • Provide reminders of required tasks. Whatever method you use (verbal, digital cues, other technology), remind teenage employees when things need to be done. Hopefully as time goes on, they’ll get a better sense of it on their own.
  • Provide clear step-by-step instructions. Hopefully during the training period, you show your teenage employees how to do specific tasks. For example, instead of saying “go count the till” you would tell them the specific steps necessary to do that.
  • Work alongside them initially. When trying to complete unfamiliar tasks, it’s hard to know where to begin or even how to begin. If possible, either you or an experienced employee can do the task along with the teenage employee to help build confidence and a feel for the work.
  • Keep them busy. Teenagers get bored. Giving them lots of activities and duties helps alleviate that. If you have to break up a larger task into smaller jobs, do it. It gives the appearance of lots to do and less time for boredom. Always have tasks that anyone can do if they suddenly have some downtime.

8. Show them that you care.

Teenagers can sniff out insincerity a mile away. You can give lip service to your teenage employees, telling them that you care about them, but you have to show it for it to stick.

  • Feed them, family style. In a Restaurant Business article about the struggle with teenage employees, the suggestion to feed your restaurant workers family style before the shift began was given as a way to build loyalty. Today’s teenage generation values being loyal to those who are loyal to them. This is about fostering a small community, and even if you aren’t in the restaurant business, you can find activities which brings everyone together as a cohesive group.
  • Have uniforms or dress codes that aren’t embarrassing. Appearances are important to teenagers. A lack of style (or even an attempt at it) is enough to make them less motivated, particularly if they’re dealing with the public at a counter where they can be seen.
  • Work with their schedule. How many teens take on a job where they’re promised flexibility with their schedule, only to find out the boss doesn’t really mean it? If you promise flexibility, keep your promise. Helping them fit their life and job together shows you care.

You aren’t trying to be their friend (that’s a bad idea, and rarely works out well for anyone); you’re trying to be an adult leader who cares what’s going on in their lives. There are two very good reasons for doing so: respect and mentoring.

Respect is won by maintaining the requirements you lay out for them in their job, but also by knowing which moments you bend because you care about them. As the leader in their job, you have a position of mentorship whether you like it or not. What you say and do is molding them into how they will be as adults, particularly in the habits they pick up pertaining to how they work a job. Teenagers don’t quit their job; they quit people. Be good people.

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