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How to Turn 'Kids These Days' Into Top-Performing Teams

March 26, 2024
I thought training my team, treating them with respect and paying them fairly entitled me to loyalty and top performance. It didn’t.

At age 13, I worked for my grandfather at our family ice cream store. He learned management in the Army, and it showed. He told people what to do and expected them to do it. But what worked leading soldiers during the war didn’t with teenagers after school and on weekends.

“I don’t understand,” I’d hear him complain. “I’m paying 100% of their check. Shouldn’t they give me 100% of their effort? I just don’t get these kids.”

Theoretically my grandfather was right. Both parties should fully commit to their side of the employer-employee arrangement. But anyone who’s led hourly workers knows that’s not realistic. Funding employees’ paychecks doesn’t necessarily motivate them. That truth has led to the timeless complaint: younger generations are softer, lazier, and more entitled than their predecessors. 

“Young people are so disloyal and entitled.”
“They’re constantly calling out.”
“They’re so unmotivated.”
“They never last.”
“They’re so thin-skinned.”

I hear these comments from my clients in retail, restaurants, hospitality, franchising, and most certainly construction—all sectors relying on hourly help. In every industry, when it comes to managing hourly employees, they struggle.

Same old Story

What so many bosses forget is that these comments were once made about them. In 2013, Time published a story called “The ME ME ME GENERATION” describing millennials as “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” New York magazine ran a similar story called “The Me Decade”—referring to the 1970s. Forty-five years prior, in a piece called “The Conduct of Young People,” Hull Daily Mail printed, “We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.” And finally, "Young people are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances. They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it." That was from Aristotle in Rhetoric in the 4th century BC. The old have been hating on the young for millennia. 

In 2019 social scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara published their study of older subjects and their perspective on younger generations. They observed that as we age, we tend to criticize the young for lacking in areas where we perceive ourselves to excel. We also have unreliable, idealized memories of ourselves which we compare to the youth of today.

More reliable than these scientists is my mother. After complaining to her about my college-aged son’s flakiness, she began rattling off stories of my college years when I behaved with equal cluelessness. Apparently, I wasn’t the responsible kid I thought I was. It’s made me wonder. During my first few jobs, was I not the reliable, hard-working employee I remember to be? Did I contribute to my grandfather’s frustration?

Objectivity and Self-Awareness

I sympathized with him during the decade I ran my own retail businesses. For many years, my employees were my biggest source of stress. I blamed their entire generation for their incompetence. Apathy, tardiness, ghosting—it drove me crazy. I conveyed my expectations when I hired them. Why weren’t they meeting them? I’d joined the ranks of frustrated employers lamenting the days when we, as Gen-Xers, worked harder (despite what our Boomer parents thought).

The turning point came when I approached that question—why weren’t they meeting my expectations?—with curiosity and not just judgment. I needed to clear my head of frustration and stop with the generational comparisons. That increased self-awareness made it easier to observe my employees more objectively and better understand them. I realized my expectations were unreasonable. Like my grandfather, I thought training my team, treating them with respect and paying them fairly entitled me to loyalty and top performance. It didn’t. They needed more. They needed reminders. They needed coaching. They needed time. It wasn’t enough to manage them. I had to nurture them.

Key Questions

The process began with a little soul searching. I’ve often found solutions to business problems in the mirror. That requires humility. Ego is the enemy of leadership and an impediment to self-improvement. I put mine aside and started reflecting on my management style and how I might be responsible for the generation gap. I pondered questions such as:

  • What assumptions have I made about my employees?
  • What biases do I have?
  • How has my upbringing, my values, and my view of workplace norms impacted how I see my team?

Asking myself those questions put me in check so I could think differently—hopefully more objectively—about my young employees. I dispensed with all assumptions and asked important questions, such as:

  • What do my workers care about?
  • What drives them?
  • What triggers them?
  • Is money as important to them as I think, or do they have other priorities?

I held group and individual conversations to explore these questions. I also conducted a blind survey among my team. I really wanted to understand them in hopes of increasing my influence and boosting their performance. Companies spend millions of dollars learning about the marketplace they want to serve. Doesn’t it make sense to learn about the labor marketplace you want to lead?

A Series of Small Adjustments

The data I collected inspired changes. I offered employees the additional acknowledgement they wanted. I explained the connection between the work they were doing with me and their own long-term goals. I spent more time building culture. It was a series of small adjustments to my management and the workplace that made a world of difference. Only then did I discover what my team could really do. With these same employees, we saw increased sales, improved customer service ratings, higher employee satisfaction (which I measured), and longer retention. I got the performance I wanted from them. It just took better management from me.

Employee underperformance may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. Your team shouldn’t have to accommodate you. They won’t. You need to accommodate them. You’re probably updating the tools you use in your operation so you can remain productive and competitive. Management is a form of technology. It must be updated so you don’t fall behind.

So, are younger employees today really as lazy and entitled as us older folks believe them to be? It’s the wrong question. What we should be asking instead is what we need to do on our end to earn their devotion and grow them into the team we want them to be. And if we’re not willing to do that, then perhaps it’s not our employees who are entitled.

Scott Greenberg is a business speaker, writer, and coach who helps leaders and teams perform at a higher level. His new book is entitled Stop The Shift Show: Turn Your Struggling Hourly Workers into a Top-Performing Team. More information at



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