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Tim Elmore

On Leading the Next Generation

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How to Motivate Students Who Don’t Want Responsibility

My friend, Zach, told me about a recent project he gave to a freshman college student. Zach mentioned he’d heard me talk about how we must give ownership of a teen’s learning to them. So, he discussed this project with the student and saw his eyes light up when he added: “And you can decide how you want to solve this problem. I am leaving the methods totally up to you. It’s yours. You can ‘own’ this challenge.”

I was proud of Zach, as this type of leadership was difficult for him. He’s 41 years old, and usually delegates projects yet still assumes control of the methods and results. Zach told me he was on “cloud nine” after the student agreed to take on the project.

Then, Zach got a surprise.

The next day, this student texted him, saying he wanted to back out. He didn’t want to take on the project after all.

When the two of them got to debrief later, Zach discovered an oxymoron inside this student. Like many in the population who make up Generation Z, he did want to “own” his learning. He wanted control of the projects he’s given. On the other hand, however, he didn’t want all the responsibility of those projects. After reflecting he got scared:

  • “What if I fail?”
  • “What if I don’t like some aspects of the task?”
  • “What if I get bored?”
  • “What if there’s a better option that comes along later?”
  • “What if I can’t handle all the burdens of this responsibility?”

One Dilemma of Generation Z

Herein lies one challenge we have with today’s teens. They want the autonomy that typically comes with adolescence and young adulthood. But they may not want all the problems that come with being in control, problems that come with responsibility. In addition, they’re often overwhelmed with their current realities.

This is a picture of what’s happened since the dawn of the 21st century.

Kids have grown with smart technology, feeling empowered by its information. They can learn subjects quicker and more efficiently than previous generations. (Thanks Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia.) What often doesn’t come with this empowerment is the responsibility for this knowledge. The bottom line?

They have accessibility without accountability.

Motivating Students to Take Responsibility

I have a friend who owns a fast-food restaurant. A few years back, she promoted some young team members to positions of authority, people in their late teens and early 20s (some were recent college graduates). My friend learned she gave them too much too fast, as they’d never experienced the accountability that comes with power. Those young managers began to divide team members into factions. They gossiped with code words via social media and text messages and even turned many against my friend, the very one who gave out the paychecks.

She had to let four of them go.

Since that time, we’ve discussed how to motivate young team members to embrace both the freedom and the responsibility that comes with a project. Here are some ideas that surfaced through various conversations:

1. First, meet to discuss this very dilemma in our culture.

Step one should be a conversation over this very societal dilemma of gaining power without responsibility; make it a general conversation about society as a whole.

2. Next, discuss the projects that are most attractive to them, defining the stakes.

Before you delegate anything, ensure they get to choose their first task, which will foster ownership. Once they do, don’t neglect to define the stakes involved in their choice.

 3. Ease them into the responsibility process, keeping the price behind the power.

Next, ease them into the task, giving them responsibility more slowly than the autonomy, much like how they learned to ride a bike with training wheels.

4. Remove the fear of failure by sharing the load with them for a season.

Continue reminding them of the benefits of succeeding at the job and of your past mistakes—as you share the responsibility. Then, slowly, take the training wheels off.

5. Ask questions along the way, teaching the weight of each decision they make.

Throughout the delegation process, ask lots of questions, ensuring they see the ramifications of their choices; discuss the gravity and stakes of each decision.

6. Celebrate “wins,” letting them feel the satisfaction that comes with ownership.

As they assume full control, help them feel the “wins” and “losses” of their leadership, resulting in a realistic perspective and teaching them that failure isn’t fatal.

Do you remember Uncle Ben’s words to Peter Parker? “With great power comes great responsibility.” Let’s help Generation Z embrace this.

Enjoy this article? Check out our new book: Generation Z Unfiltered—Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population. CLICK HERE.

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How to Motivate Students Who Don’t Want Responsibility