Managing older, more experienced employees is becoming an essential – and, frankly, unavoidable – skill for young leaders to master.
As increasingly more people work well into their 70s, millennials are also fast becoming the largest demographic in the American workforce and are climbing the ladder into the echelons of management. Generation Z isn’t far behind.
This younger manager-tenured employee dynamic can result in tension between the two parties when:
- Employees chafe at having what they perceive as a green, inexperienced manager who knows much less about the company or industry than them.
- The less experienced manager senses a lack of respect for their authority and resents it.
It can also create self-doubt and insecurity in younger managers, who may worry:
Do others think I’m unprepared or unintelligent?
Do others think my promotion is undeserved or question how I assumed my leadership position?
Does anyone take me seriously?
Would my team prefer an older manager?
Am I in over my head? Should I quit or change jobs?
All of this can undermine workplace harmony, as well as the overall confidence and ultimate success of young leaders.
So how can you, as a young manager, overcome these risks and enjoy healthy working relationships with your more tenured employees?
1. Don’t rely on stereotypes or make assumptions about others based on their age (or tenure)
Sure, each generation, at a high level, tends to share a set of defining characteristics, common experiences, aspirations and motivations.
But be careful about falling into the trap of pigeon-holing the more mature employees:
They’re bad at technology.
They’re stuck in their ways and resistant to new ideas.
They’re ignorant of pop culture.
They don’t need any further training because they’re experienced.
After all, in the reverse situation, most Millennial managers wouldn’t want the older members of their team to think they’re lazy, entitled or overly reliant on technology based on their age alone.
Perpetuating stereotypes or making (erroneous) assumptions about your employees’ capabilities and desires can hurt your relationship with employees and negatively impact their career.
The reality is, people are much more complex than their age. We all have unique life experiences, interests and natural strengths. Get to know the people on your team as individuals, without preconceived notions. Many people defy generational stereotypes.
And don’t assume from the outset that your age will be a problem for older employees. That attitude can make you feel instantly hostile and defensive without cause, and can start relationships off on the wrong foot. Remember: Management selected you to lead your team, and your title automatically conveys a certain degree of authority.
2. Treat everyone with respect and fairness
Although your title does carry authority, you still have to earn the respect of your team. To earn their respect, you must first demonstrate respect for them.
Regardless of their age, all employees want to:
- Be treated respectfully
- Feel valued
- Be invited to share their opinions
- Have their recommendations sincerely considered
Regardless of your age, the opportunity exists for you to garner respect from your more seasoned team members. It’s not a foregone conclusion that your younger age will create difficulties for you. In fact, there’s no correlation between age and one’s ability to win respect. It all comes down to your behavior toward others – whether you’re 30 or 50.
As a general rule, older employees appreciate being treated as a valuable resource – so ask them to share their breadth of knowledge with you. A sign of a good manager is a willingness to accept that they don’t know everything but are willing to ask the right questions from their team to expand their insight and make solid decisions. Remember that some tenured employees may have consciously opted out of a management role themselves to focus on their area of expertise.
Resist any urges to micromanage employees, especially those with abundant experience and knowledge.
When classic generational preferences are apparent, accommodate these different working styles. Older employees may use a means of communication or a process for accomplishing a task that feels foreign or less efficient to you, but if they’re meeting deadlines and putting forth quality work, then don’t force them to change or be overly critical of them.
Find opportunities for you to step back and let older employees shine. For example, consider whether there’s an opportunity for them to leverage their experience to head up a campaign or project rather than you. Have them mentor newer, younger employees on your team. This conveys your trust in them and serves as an acknowledgement of their value.
As we’ve said before, get to know your employees as individuals. Find out their interests, goals and preferences.
However, if an older employee is insubordinate or not doing their job, address the issue as you would with anyone else on the team.
- Be firm.
- Focus on the facts.
- Listen to their perspective to determine whether there’s a genuine issue that needs to be resolved with your input.
- Point to objective policies in your employee handbook as needed, to make the situation less personal and to reduce the risk that an employee accuses you of age-related discrimination or hostilities.
3. Build trust and credibility
Quit worrying about the negative things that others might be (but most likely aren’t) thinking about you because you’re younger and less experienced. Stop dwelling on all your perceived shortcomings related to your age. Move past your age label.
Instead, think about the positive ways you can boost your authority and enhance the team atmosphere:
- Be supportive – an advocate for your employees.
- Get employees’ input.
- Understand who your employees are as people and what they want – and help them get there.
- Be engaged and accessible.
- Communicate transparently and honestly.
- Provide updates and feedback regularly.
- Align your words with your actions.
- Follow all policies you set.
- Recognize and reward individuals for their contributions.
- Correct your own errors and take responsibility for them.
- Build consensus.
These are all universal traits of good leaders – not just good “young” leaders.
4. Don’t push change for the sake of change or think you have all the answers – seek to understand first
Your instinct, as a new manager, may be to initiate changes right away. Young leaders tend to be enthusiastic, optimistic and brimming with ideas. They think a manager should be take-charge and make an immediate impact.
Initially, tamp down those instincts to avoid looking like an arrogant know-it-all or a reckless bull in the china shop.
Get comfortable with the idea that you don’t know everything – and you don’t have to appear to know everything to earn respect. One of your roles as a manager is to ask questions and find opportunities and solutions. You want to be viewed as thoughtful and deliberative, not impulsive.
Especially if you’re new to a company or industry, accept that there will be a period of time in which you need to become educated on why things are done the way they currently are. At first, you probably won’t have the insider intel you need to make well-informed and effective changes:
- Insight into internal relationships and dynamics between departments and teams (organizational politics)
- Knowledge of the company history
- Cultural norms, including written and unwritten business rules
- Explanation of why previous efforts failed or succeeded
- Understanding of how the different parts of the organization work together to achieve common goals
If you rush to make changes without first assessing the situation, you could risk making detrimental changes that in turn negatively impact culture, trust, morale and turnover – to say nothing of profitability.
As a general rule, older employees place importance on company tradition and culture. Be sensitive to the appearance of disrespecting either.
Again, seek out the wealth of organizational knowledge at your disposal via tenured employees.
- Ask them about how certain processes or strategies came about.
- Find out what’s working and what’s not.
- Solicit their opinions and ideas.
Recognize that change can feel unwelcome and stressful for some employees, especially for those who have been doing the same thing for a long time and have built up a comfort level with the routine. If you proceed with changes after careful evaluation, make sure you avoid common change-management mistakes:
- Communicate changes clearly to all impacted parties.
- Explain the business need for change and how the change positively impacts the employee.
- Allow a reasonable transition period.
- Enable two-way feedback mechanisms to consistently monitor and improve the change.
- Provide employees with the support and resources they need to be successful, such as additional training or tools.
If your changes are met with resistance, be prepared to relieve this resistance by leveraging the more mature employees to help champion and advocate the change.
5. Pair with an experienced leader
In addition to relying on more seasoned, older employees to teach you, lean on other managers who have both the experience and organizational insight to guide you in all the subtleties and softer skills that aren’t typically covered in manager training: Navigating culture, politics, norms and unspoken business rules, for example.
Ideally, from within your manager peers you’d identify a mentor who can help you adjust to your new leadership role, offer advice for certain issues and help evaluate and refine your ideas.
6. Leverage the positive qualities associated with young leaders
It’s easy for young leaders to focus on their disadvantages and challenges.
But shift your thinking: What about all the things that young leaders tend to do especially well? There are so many great, positive qualities associated with Millennials in the workplace and, increasingly, in leadership roles. Any work, regardless of age, will benefit from these characteristics:
- Highly adaptive and welcoming of change
- Receptive to feedback
- Eager to continually improve
- Openness to remote work and flexible work schedules
- Attuned to the needs of working parents
- Encouraging of a better work-life balance
- More collaborative, and not overly caught up in the idea of a hierarchy
- Skilled users and early adopters of technology
- Increased levels of enthusiasm
People who embody these traits are assets to any organization. Put these qualities into practice for your benefit.
Summing it all up
Are you a young leader who’s new to a manager role and struggling with acceptance by older employees (real or perceived)? Although we tend to think there’s a big divide between Millennial managers and the Baby Boomers on their team, we’re all more alike than we realize. No matter our age, we all crave respectful treatment as capable, competent professionals. We all want to have leaders who embody trustworthiness, integrity and transparency. We all want to be valued and recognized for our contributions. By focusing more on human commonalities and less on generational differences, much of your success as a young leader will fall into place.
- Age stereotypes are often misleading, and over-relying on them can cause problems. Get to know people as individuals.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for your more tenured employees’ advice and insight. They’ll appreciate it! Humility and inquisitiveness are good qualities in managers.
- Find an experienced manager to serve as your leadership mentor.
- Be careful about implementing immediate, drastic changes. Take the time to observe and understand first.
- Don’t blatantly snub what your employees may find important, such as tradition and routine.
- Get over your age label, and all the self-imposed limitations and challenges you have associated with your age. Focus on what you and your fellow young leaders do well and how the strengths of the team can enable the business.
To learn more about becoming a stronger leader at any age, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.