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New employees and self-fulfilling prophecies

Telling new employees their generation is lazy and entitled will only drive them to meet that expectation, rather than grow into the leaders of our future


"[Leadership] means taking into account different races, nationalities, genders, upbringings, negatives and positives, and molding them into an energetic, proficient, self-motivated spoke that supports the wheel that is your department,” writes Cuomo.

Photo/Wallingford (Conn.) Fire Department

By John Cuomo

It finally happened. It took almost three years, but the dream of my life was here. I was a firefighter, hired just as I was turning 21.

That first year would involve probation, monthly training, and testing to make sure I could do the job to the satisfaction of the department. I was learning all new things and dealing with people’s emergencies and tragedies. At that young age, I saw things I had never seen before in my life. Despite all this, I was on cloud 9. Nothing could wipe the smile off my face. I was proud that I was a firefighter, helping people, and was working as hard as I could to be a part of the team, the brotherhood.

Three days into the job, before I did a single 24-hour shift, an assistant chief told me that my generation is lazy, entitled, soft and doesn’t want to work. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything.

Throughout my first few years, I would hear this mantra repeated over and over again by senior members of the department. No matter how hard I worked, I heard it so much that I ultimately came to accept it and believe it.

The curse of every new generation

Fast forward to 10 years into my career. A new generation of firefighters are coming onboard – firefighters who are very different than me and the people I got hired with. Computers and video games were a much bigger part of their life growing up. I soon began to hear the same verbiage – this generation was lazy, entitled, soft and didn’t want to work.

As another 10 years passed and the millennials began to come onboard, low and behold, they too were lazy, entitled, soft and didn’t want to work. What is happening? Is every generation lazy, entitled and unwilling to work? Are we getting worse as a society? Will the next generation be the same? Is there a way to stop this descent?

It quickly became obvious that these descriptions were just words directed at the newer hires, no matter their generation. Mine, yours, before me, after me – it was all the same.

Does this behavior produce positive effects? Does it produce negative effects? Is it good leadership?

Self-fulfilling prophecies

A common theme among young people today is that they want to make a difference, have an impact, be a part of something bigger. Does calling them lazy, entitled, soft, and telling them they don’t want to work help them to accomplish these desires? Does it make them say, “Hey, I am lazy; let me change that so I can make an impact”?

I can tell you from personal experience and observation, not only does it not do that, but it sends them in the other direction. Either they begin to believe they are lazy and entitled and thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or they become jaded, angry and feel like nothing they do makes a difference. This behavior helps account for the current employment hurdle of “quiet quitting” where workers perform the minimum expectations for the job.

People live up to their expectations. When you tell a child they are smart and you expect good marks, they live up to or strive to fulfill these expectations. Children begin to believe what we tell them and expect these things of themselves. The reverse is true as well, and not just with a child, adults too.

Additionally, by telling younger firefighters that they are lazy and entitled, you put a wall up that halts progress. Imagine this: You’re on a date with someone new, and you tell them that they are lazy, soft, entitled and just don’t want to work. Or you tell your partner this every day. I think you can see why the date won’t continue and the long-term relationship would likely fail.

But this is a job, not a relationship, you might think. Yes, this is a job, but it is also most certainly a relationship, especially if you are in a position of leadership. Your employer or boss did not hire you or promote you to demotivate new hires or wall them off, aggravate them or push them away.

5 ways to support new members

Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about accomplishing a goal or a task set before you with a team or group of people. Your employer entrusted you to train new firefighters and to build them into a team member, a brotherhood, to mold them into the quintessential firefighter the department needs. That means taking into account different races, nationalities, genders, upbringings, negatives and positives, and molding them into an energetic, proficient, self-motivated spoke that supports the wheel that is your department.

How can you do this? Let’s discuss five approaches.

  1. Try to understand: Don’t label anyone and don’t judge anyone. People entering the workforce today in some ways have it easier than those in previous years. Years of low unemployment have made employers give greater benefits to entice talent, and employees have gotten used to this. But young employees also are in a world where it is more essential than ever to have a college education to succeed. Along with that comes massive debt like never before, debt that can be with them for decades, followed by the potential for little in return when they retire.

    When I grew up, there were only seven TV stations and the news was one hour, starting at 6 p.m. Younger generations grew up with thousands of news feeds from TV to social media and cell phone apps. They are constantly bombarded with sad, devastating, debilitating, horrific news from every corner of the earth, all day and all night. Their country is politically divided like never before and dominated by misinformation, hate and vitriol. Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell once described Gen Z as being born into crisis, with terrorism, global recessions and climate change – and important factor to consider as it relates to their perception of the world. It’s amazing they have any positivity. Do not judge them. Instead, try to understand their background and work with them to improve the traits they need to improve.

  2. Learn from them: These younger generations include some of the most generous, open, caring and tolerant people in our country. They accept people for who they are, and even before they have established their own material things, they are interested in giving to others. Show appreciation for their traits and learn from them. When people see that you appreciate who they are and that you have even learned something from them, they will be more drawn to you and your leadership.
  3. Truly care for them and let them see it: There is no true leadership without trust. If people you lead see that you care for them, they will trust you. Even when they don’t understand your direction or how it is given, they will trust it and follow it. This does not mean you have to have dinner with them every night or hang out with them every day. Think about those you care about most in life, like family and close friends. How many of them do you see daily? When you do see them, however, they know you truly care and you are there for them when they need you. It is the same with those you lead. Truly care about them, their success, their progress, and help them integrate and move forward. When someone sees you care that way, they will follow your lead, your words, and they will give you all they have.
  4. Treat everyone fairly: There is no quicker way to lose someone’s trust and respect than to treat them differently than you do others. When a person feels their effort, hard work, competency, desire and character mean nothing, and instead they are judged based on their age, personality difference or outlook in life, you will lose them. They will continue in frustration and their interactions will get worse with their supervisor, or they will quit. The inverse, treating everyone the same and fairly is so rarely seen that it is refreshing, uplifting and acts as a magnet drawing people to you.
  5. Help them strive to succeed: Satisfy their need to effect change. Your responsibility as a supervisor is to those you lead. It is to integrate them successfully into the fire department, into the team and to help them progress, to help them reach out and help them succeed. This leaves no room for you to talk negatively about them or do things to try to harm their career. Doing those things shows what a lack of leadership skills you have and broadcasts your own inadequacies instead of theirs. If they want to feel that they are making a difference, well then, they came to the right profession. We make a difference in other people’s lives every day. Teach them this, teach them how, help them love the people they serve, help them love the job, help them make a difference in a world that desperately needs it.

Leaders of tomorrow

Leading someone can be a challenge. Each generation is different than the last. The further apart in age, the bigger the differences can be. This does not mean that one is better than the other; they are just a little different. But what remains the same is potential. They all have the potential to excel. If you are a good leader, you have the potential to help them succeed.

Stop judging people by their generation or difference to you. Stop reinforcing negative – and likely inaccurate – descriptions or stereotypes. Instead, be a positive force for change, set an example, and help them to become the great leaders of tomorrow.

About the Author

John Cuomo worked in the fire service for 24 years, serving as a firefighter, paramedic, driver/engineer, lieutenant, captain, step-up battalion chief, step-up training chief and step-up EMS chief. He also served as the pension representative for the police and firefighter pension fund for 10 years. Cuomo authored the book “Leadership Refined by Fire.”