Scenario 1 – Older worker with decades of experience behind you but currently reporting to a manager who is half your age.
Scenario 2 – Young manager who has workers almost twice your age and with more work experience reporting up to you.
Whether you are the older worker or younger manager, generational gaps can be disconcerting and needs to be managed carefully in order to create an effective team and maximise the unique potentials it offers. These situations are becoming more common as people are living longer and healthier and older workers are delaying retirement for various reasons.
What you need to know
When you are managing older workers:
Throw out all stereotypes – If a younger manager bought into stereotypes, he could assume that the older members of his team would be outdated, set in their ways, unable to keep up with the times, difficult to relate to and a nightmare to work with. Buying into the myth that you can’t relate with your older team members just because they are decades older and have kids while you are young and single is a naive way to approach this situation. The result of such a view point will be distancing yourself from your staff in order to hide the disparity between your personal experiences and theirs which will make you out of touch with them and therefore an ineffective leader. On the other hand, taking an interest in their lives allows you to find out basic information about their families, career goals and aspirations, past work experiences which in turn will help you better equiped to know how they think, learn and communicate, what matters the most to them and how to motivate them. This will make you a more effective manager.
Remember that they need training just as much as anyone else – It is easy to assume that just because an older employee has been around a while, they don’t need as much training as younger staff who are in the early years of their career. Taking the time to understand your staff will give you insight into where they are struggling and could use additional training. Also fostering cross training between the different generations in your team can help bond the team e.g. younger staff might know their way around the latest Microsoft office shortcuts and older staff might understand why we manage that contract the way we do.
Don’t assume they don’t respect you – Assuming that your older staff do not respect you will lead to avoiding confrontations and not holding them accountable for their performance. Remember that respect is earned by doing your job well and effectively coaching your staff, providing the training they need, helping them work through mistakes and holding them up to high standards will help them succeed and gain you respect regardless of their age.
Recognise the value of their experience – Don’t feel that because you’re the boss you can’t or shouldn’t learn from your older employees. Older workers have seen the world go around and come around more than you have, so recognise the value of this experience by encouraging them to make input based on their experiences or historical knowledge and using them as mentors for younger workers where reasonable.
Communication is key – It is essential to maintain clear and open communication with staff and colleagues and more-so when there are generational gaps which might easily lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding. Being clear on what you want done, what the due date will be and the measurements of completion and success is key. So instead of asking your staff to “take care of the project reporting” it would be better to say”Please could you prepare a budget report for all the BP projects including revenue and expenditure forecasts for this calendar year and projections for the next 5 years? Include historical data from the past 5 years. I need this in a weeks time.”
Understand the different needs of different age ranges – Let’s say you’ve got 3 older members of your team – A 50 year old mother with teenage kids, a 63 year old man looking to retire in 2 years and a 70 year old who wants to work just to keep mentally active. These three people will definitely have different needs and goals and each group will present with diverse management challenges and training requirements.
When your boss is as young as your child:
Reflect on why you are bothered about the age gap… is it because you weren’t promoted for this job? Do you want the job? Is it because you feel you have more experience i.e. they are not qualified enough to direct you; are you feeling awkward just because they are young enough to be your kids? Talk to your colleagues or friends who have experienced the same circumstances and find out what strategies they found useful.
Don’t buy into stereotypes – thinking this age group is different from yours and therefore your boss would not understand you because he/she is not as mature as you are and has not experienced the world as much as you have. Try your hardest to take age out of the equation and focus on your similarities such as similar goals for the organisation.
Show respect – it’s not all about you…the other party might be feeling uncomfortable and even intimidated by your level of experience, age, etc. Recognise that you both have different talents and capabilities that you bring to the table…rather than focusing on their deficiencies focus on how you can use your skills and experience to drive the business. You need to treat this as any other business relationship. Think about how you can contribute to its success.
Aim to be a partner: The goal is to work with this person as a peer. You want your boss to consider you a partner. Understand what your boss’s problems are and pitch solutions. Propose ideals that free up your boss’ time to focus on other things.
Provide Information – Use your experience to be helpful. Offer information that your boss doesn’t know e.g. historical information about the company or insight into how colleagues in other departments think. Talk about your experience in a way that emphasizes your own learning and doesn’t sound like bragging.
Be yourself – Although it is good practice to avoid dwelling on your age in the workplace, your stage of life and experience are integral to your person and you should embrace it. Make the relationship with your boss more authentic by being open to talk about a stage of life you have experienced which your boss is currently experiencing, such as being 30 with kids if you are now 50 with grown up kids. This might open up opportunities to act as a ‘life mentor’ to your boss.
- Seek advice from friends and other colleagues who have experienced a similar dynamic in the workplace
- Aim to partner with your boss by making an effort to understand his/her problems and pitch solutions
- Arm your boss to succeed by providing relational and historical information about your industry and organisation
- Buy into stereotypes by presuming the situation will be hard and your boss will be a bad manager just because he is young
- Get stuck on your differences; instead dwell on what you have in common
- Lecture when sharing your experience and knowledge; instead emphasize your own learning and be concrete.
This post is a 5 minute summary of the following in-depth analyses on this topic, so if you have more time visit the following links:
Ma nagement.com Article by John Reh Forbes Article by The Muse Harvard Business Review Article by Prof Peter Cappelli Harvard Business Review Article by Rebecca Knight