How Young Leaders Can Communicate Successfully Across Generations

As more and more people are putting off retirement and working well into their 70s, communicating well across multiple generations is an essential skill for today’s young managers. However, young leaders sometimes find it daunting to maintain respect and authority when managing workers older than themselves. As a young manager, older workers may seem intimidating due to both years of experience, as well as a perception of not respecting a leader who is younger than their socks.

What can a young manager do to get older workers moving in a new direction? How should the young leader communicate with employees so that they feel respected and are not resentful?

The first step, regardless of a team member’s age, involves communication, patience and listening.

Employees of all ages, but especially those older than you, want to be treated respectfully, invited to share their opinions and have their recommendations sincerely considered.

Here are some communication pitfalls to avoid if you are the younger leader managing older employees.

1. Don’t waste time on assumptions

Incorrect assumptions lie at the bottom of many of the common issues related to young leaders working with older or more tenured employees.

First, it is wrong to believe older workers will automatically have a problem with younger managers. Most people assume the boss is the boss, so don’t waste time worrying about your authority. After all, management tapped you to be the leader. A certain amount of respect and authority comes with the title.

Recognize that it may take some time for your team to get used to you and for you to earn their respect. Be transparent and get to know your team as people, while you let them get to know you and what you care about both inside and outside the workplace.

That said, if an older worker is insubordinate or not doing their job, address the issue as you would with any other worker. Be firm, focus on the facts and listen. Your problem employee may simply need more time to adjust to a new process, or have a genuine issue that needs to be resolved with your input.

2. Be mindful of tradition

Your instinct, as the new, energetic, gung-ho manager, may be to begin making changes right away; getting rid of the dust in the corners, so to speak. Keep that instinct tamped down while you get to know the history of why things are done the way they are.

Corporate tradition and culture are important, especially to older generations. Your older team members will appreciate being treated as a valued resource, so ask them to share their knowledge.

You will also need to get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to know everything. Being the boss means you know where to get good information to make solid decisions – for instance, your more experienced subordinates. Tap their wealth of organizational knowledge for the good of the team.

No one wants to be managed by a know-it-all or work for a manager who overturns the system simply for the sake of change. Be ready to thoroughly explain any changes you implement. Be prepared to meet resistance with detailed explanations of why this change is necessary.

3. Distracted by age

Beware falling into the trap of thinking that older employees aren’t competent with technology. After all, your age doesn’t automatically convey an interest in the latest Twitter tiff between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj.

While older workers may not embrace popular culture to the same degree as younger workers, many are technically savvy in using the Internet and social media. Additionally, you might have an older worker who is a “wiz” at Excel pivot tables or knows how to write code like a boss.

Training is another area to double-check yourself. An older worker can be just as interested in learning something new as someone younger. In fact, an older worker may welcome the chance to do something different. On the flip-side, don’t assume that your older workers don’t need additional training merely because they are older. Even though they may have a lot of experience, they don’t know everything.

4. Don’t command and demand – understand

Your key job as leader is to identify and respond to what motivates the employees on your team. Most of all, you should respect those motivations.

Remember that while you may be motivated by the chance to gain management experience or increased responsibilities, others may respond to a flexible schedule, maintaining their benefits, more creative freedom or a less stressful position.

Consider whether a more tenured employee can head up a campaign or project rather than you. This not only recognizes and uses the experience of the older employee, it also gives you a chance to expand your management chops.

Whatever their motivation, you need engaged, committed employees and it’s your job to find those motivations, understand them and capitalize on their experience for the good of the company and the employee.

5. Recognize generational preferences

There are some differences in how people from different generations prefer to communicate, and you, as a manager, should be aware of these.

Baby Boomers tend to like more face-time, even if they are tech savvy, and want their accomplishments recognized. Gen Xers tend to be more independent minded and appreciate the ability to manage their own time. Millennials want collaboration and the chance to grow and learn.

Younger managers need to be particularly sensitive to how confidential information, directions and criticism are delivered. Texts, email and social media cannot replace face-to-face interaction for these important categories of communication.

For more details about generational strengths and differences, read our post “Multigenerational Workforce: How to Bridge the Generation Gap.”

As in any situation, respect is earned through competence, fairness and respect given. Employees of any age respond to having their opinions valued and feeling like they are appreciated.

Remember, you don’t want assumptions made about you, the young manager. Proceed accordingly with your employees of all ages.

For more tips on how to be a leader everyone loves, read our free guide, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.

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