“Practice Golden Rule 1 of Management in everything you do. Manage others the way you would like to be managed.” -Brian Tracy, motivational public speaker and self-development author.
As the average workforce age continues to rise and companies desperate to retain top talent promote employees earlier in their careers, managers often end up responsible for direct reports who are 10 or more years their senior. Whether you have one direct report who’s older than you or you’re the youngest person working for the company, there’s no need to anticipate friction, but it’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive. Some initial awkwardness might be inevitable, but the age difference doesn’t preclude a strong, productive relationship.
Serving as a manager at any age can be nerve-wracking and challenging, especially at the beginning. Even as a young manager, you have to remember you earned this position of authority for a reason—probably multiple reasons. If you want your direct reports to have confidence in you, you must have confidence in yourself.
- Don’t overcompensate and try too hard to “prove yourself.” If you believe you have to prove yourself, others will begin to feel that you need to as well. Do your job well, and you’ll earn everyone’s respect.
- If you want people to do their jobs, you have to do yours. That means you have to own the full responsibilities of management. “Confront issues, establish expectations, and hold people accountable,” says Doug Brown, who manages the online MBA program at Post University in Waterbury, Conn.
- Avoid self-defeating statements. When you communicate, do so with confidence. Avoid saying things like: “This might be wrong, but…” or “I’m not sure you’ll agree. However…” You should seek others’ wisdom, but make it clear when you are doing that. When you share your opinion or explain how something is going to happen, be direct.
Take Advantage of Older Employees’ Experience and Expertise
The biggest mistake you can make as a young manager is assuming you have to pretend to know everything. Gathering qualitative and quantitative data to improve processes and generate better ideas is one of the most important roles for any manager, and older employees have a wealth of experience and wisdom to share. Asking them for input will increase your effectiveness as a manager, improve results and make your direct reports feel more invested and respected.
- Listen to your older direct reports’ stories, understand their work experience, and use them as a resource. Most of the time, they’ll have great ideas will be eager to share. All employees, regardless of age, want to be part of the decision-making process and are excited to share their expertise.
- Don’t assume knowledge or lack thereof. For example, just because a person has been with the company for a long time doesn’t mean he or she knows everything about organizational workflow or processes. Also, just because someone is older doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t understand advanced technology. Listen and determine what each person needs to learn.
- Tap into older employees’ institutional knowledge to find out why things are the way they are. This is especially true if you are a manager and also a new employee. “While ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ should never be used as an excuse, sometimes it’s always been that way for reasons only a veteran would know,” said Adam Povlitz, president of Anago Cleaning Systems.
Find Points of Connection
A good manager should show interest in the lives of his or her employees, and this is no different when it comes to older employees. Getting to know your direct reports will not only help you work together more effectively but also create a healthier workplace.
- Age difference doesn’t mean you won’t have mutual interests, which can help create a stronger relationship. Your older direct reports may have children and grandchildren while you only have a roommate and a cactus, but you can still show interest in their families. Find out which sports they like, places they’ve traveled, where they grew up or what they enjoy doing on weekends. Chances are, you’ll be able to find common ground or at least something interesting to discuss.
- Use one-on-ones as a time to nurture a personal relationship. Face-to-face communication is very important, especially for older direct reports. “Millennials are used to getting . . . a shoutout on Slack for a job well done, whereas boomers usually prefer for their manager to stop by their desk to thank them for staying late to bring a project over the finish line,” says Rishav Gupta, CEO of iCoachFirst. Of course, that’s not true of all millennials or all boomers. Just remember that people are individuals, and they may value certain types of communication or praise over others.
- Plan team building activities or after work functions that include everyone. Be aware of lifestyle differences. An older employee may need to go home to his family and thus be unable to join for happy hour after work. Understand that their absence doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of desire to connect with other employees. Plan different types of outings to make sure everyone feels included.
If you want your direct reports to be open-minded about working under a younger manager, you need to be open-minded about the reality of difference in opinion, lifestyle, and working style of your employees.
- Throw stereotypes out the window. People judge others based on all kinds of stereotypes such as gender, race, appearance, and, of course, age. Don’t do that. Evaluate your direct reports as individuals. Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, thinks job performance gets better with age, despite some stereotypical beliefs to the contrary, which are especially pervasive in the tech community. “The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense.”
- Conquer your insecurities. You’re a young manager. So what? You were promoted because of your leadership skills, expertise, and work ethic, not because of (or in spite of) your age. Now go help your direct reports succeed.
If this all sounds like advice you’d give to anyone managing someone new, it’s because it mostly is. Older people are people too—focus on being respectful and putting your direct report in a position to succeed, and you’ll develop a strong, productive relationship.