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Want to Kill Young Workers’ Motivation and Drive? Utter These 4 Words

Commencement season is in full bloom. And many organizations are looking forward to an influx of freshly-minted graduates within their ranks. Potential and excitement fill the air. The opportunity to develop, inspire, engage, and grow these new workplace entrants is great. So is the potential to kill their motivation and drive… with just four small words.

I met a young man in his mid-20’s recently who shared with me his plans to change jobs. He’d been with his current employer for a couple of years, taking on increasing levels of responsibility. He didn’t mind the additional work without a title change or more compensation; he was delighted to be learning, expanding his skills, and gaining valuable experience. A position in his current organization that represented the next logical step in his career progression had recently opened up. He summoned the courage to approach his management with his interest. The response he received started with those four small words:

“You’re too young to…”

Nothing that came after mattered to – or was even heard by – this young man. He promptly activated his network, started applying for jobs elsewhere, and tendered his resignation.

It reminded me of a time earlier in my career. I was a consultant and had been working with my company’s sales team and a prospective client on a sizable and fairly complex training implementation. Things had gone well and the client was very happy with the work. The contract was signed and I got ready to head off to Arizona. Then I heard those four small words:

“You’re too young to…”

Planning the implementation was one thing; but rolling it out… that required someone with more experience and some grey hair. I’d done a fine job, my boss told me. But I was too young to take it from there.

These four small words go far beyond answering a request or redirecting someone’s effort. They’re killer words.  They extinguish motivation, inspiration, excitement, and even connection with the organization. These four small words close doors and choke off possibilities. They discourage, demoralize, and drive young people away.

Now, let’s be honest. Not all young people are prepared to take on every challenge they aspire to. But youth should never be used as an excuse or reason to hold someone back. Instead, what if organizations and managers communicated a different ‘you’re too’ message to their young, ambitious workers? What about…

You’re too talented to not keep growing… so what skills will you need to develop to be prepared to take on greater responsibilities?

You’re too valuable to not know how much we appreciate you… so thank you for your contributions and performance.

You’re too creative and innovative to not continue to be challenged… so what‘s next on the list of things you’d like to take on?

The ambition and even impatience of young workers can be a vital competitive advantage to organizations who know how to harness it. We need young employees to remain passionately engaged so we can cultivate them into the tenured contributors who will become the bedrock of our organizations. The first step is to rid your vocabulary of those four small words.  And we’re never too young – or old – to do that.

Image: www.freedigitalphotos.net

15 comments on “Want to Kill Young Workers’ Motivation and Drive? Utter These 4 Words

  1. Justin Johnson on

    This is so true. Young workers want to kick butt and don’t see anyone’s age as a problem.
    Their lack of experience can be overcome but coaching leadership is key to this. Give them the tools, and they’ll handle the motivation and details.

    • Julie Giulioni on

      I couldn’t agree more. And what organization doesn’t want to cultivate a little butt-kicking?! Tools, support, and experiences will enable young workers (and more seasoned ones alike) to deliver the kind of performance that’s required for success in today’s marketplace. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Justin!

      • Jessie on

        When I was younger, I was told by several of my managers the same 4 killer words. They actually motivate and drive me more into looking for opportunities to “learn on my own” as much as I. I then left and applied the skills I learned in another organization where I can shine and be appreciated. Leaders and managers have to realize when they use those words, the consequence is their loss.

        • Julie Giulioni on

          This is a very powerful example of the consequences. You used the 4 words as motivation to take your talents and enthusiasm elsewhere. That’s devastating for an organization. But others pack up their talents and enthusiasm… and stay! This is equally devastating. Congratulations to you for finding a place where you’re appreciated and able to grow. Best of luck to you, Jessie!

          • brookle on

            Another thing to remember is not to say:
            You’re too old…
            I know plenty of ardent, intelligent, focused, bright employees who have also heard that one. If we can respect the insight, enthusiasm and skill that everyone brings we will be a much better work force. We’ll even be a (work)force to be reckoned with!

  2. Carrie K. on

    Julie, I really liked this post. The number of times that my age has been thrown in my face as a reason why I shouldn’t know or can’t do something is probably more than I can count. Condescending comments based on age are one of my pet peeves.

    I’ve met 60 year olds who are less capable of handling a job than 20 year old “newbies”, so I have a hard time believing that age has anything to do with anything. It’s more about personality and ability than it is about a number. For those of us who are younger than others, I would rather be judged by my ability and skills than by the number of candles on my cake. 🙂

  3. Julie Giulioni on

    Thanks, Carrie. And you’re right. Rotations around the sun mean a lot less that the skills, capabilities and sensibilities one brings to the work. Neither maturity nor ability demand grey hair!

  4. Praveen Kumar on

    Dear Julie.. you did amazing work..
    I almost find myself on the above post..
    your interest to motivate the young souls & help them grow on there carrier & personality prospects.. the post will amazingly work for all the managers, juniors.. everyone who will take it as a serious solution..

    • Julie Giulioni on

      Thanks, Praveen. I’m glad it makes sense to you… and I hope it resonates for other leaders. I believe that if leaders understand the demotivating effects of these words, they’ll drop them. Fingers crossed!

  5. Pete on

    Closely followed by “you sure you’re up to it” also known as the politically correct version of ” you’re too old”. Managers (even normally good/effective ones) can let their bias get in the way of theirs and their team’s success.

    • Julie Giulioni on

      You’re right, Pete. These’s tremendous power in a leaders words… power to inspire and motivate… and power to do the exact opposite. Your comment is a good reminder that our biases, beliefs and mindsets really drive those words that we speak. As leaders, we need to check ourselves. And – while we can’t realistically scrub all of that from our psyche – we can become aware and more intentional in the process. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts here.

    • Julie Giulioni on

      Yep… that is the other side of this ugly coin. How unenlightened of leaders to dismiss capacity, experience and potential based upon the number of birthdays someone has had!


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