Managing Workers Who Are Older and More Experienced Than You

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie March 4, 2020
Managing Workers Who Are Older and More Experienced Than You

​"Strange." "Awkward." "Intimidating."

Those are words managers have used to describe what it felt like to find themselves in charge of employees many years older and more experienced than they were.

Millennials now outnumber other generations at work; yet with many older workers putting off retirement, chances are the former will increasingly supervise the latter. This can mean that many new managers may be decades younger than subordinates for whom they are writing performance reviews, deciding salary and perhaps even considering discipline.

Jennifer Brown, SHRM-SCP, was 26 when she was hired to supervise 10 workers at Freddie Mac—all of them older than she.

"Initially, I could tell they were suspicious of me and what I could bring to the team," said Brown, co-founder and managing partner of Successful Culture International, a corporate-culture consultancy based in Sterling, Va. "In fact, some of the team members were downright resistant to having me as a manager."

A Harris Interactive survey conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder.com, an employment website, found that nearly 4 in 10 U.S. workers had a younger boss. Of those workers, 22 percent reported to someone a few years younger, while 16 percent had a boss 10 years or more their junior.

The  number of younger managers supervising older workers will only grow, according to Chip Conley, a strategic advisor for Millennial executives of hospitality companies and author of Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (Currency, 2018).

He notes that the fastest-growing age demographic of employees in the workplace is 65 years and older, which has experienced a 35 percent jump over the past half-decade. At the same time, he said, companies are eager to hire and promote workers who are most comfortable with and understand technology, which often translates to Millennials and members of Generation Z.

As a result, older workers can increasingly expect to be answering to managers who are young enough to be their children.

"The average employee age at giants like Facebook, Apple and Google isn't quite 30," wrote Conley. "We're seeing startup entrepreneurs in their early 20s become global disruption billionaires before they turn 30; 60 may be the new 40 physically, but when it comes to power in the modern workplace, 30 is the new 50."

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Ageism at Work]

Not All Older Workers Will Be Happy with a Younger Boss

A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that most workers with younger managers reported having more negative emotions, such as anger and fear, than those with older bosses.

In the Harris and CareerBuilder.com survey, workers who weren't happy having a younger manager gave the following reasons:

  • The boss thinks he/she knows more than I do, when I have more experience: 55 percent
  • The boss shows favoritism toward younger workers: 38 percent
  • The boss gets defensive if I question his/her decision: 42 percent
  • The boss assumes I don't know how to do certain things: 34 percent
  • The boss assumes I don't know how to use certain technologies: 21 percent

    Beware of embracing stereotypes about older workers, said Joyce Maroney, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos. It's the quickest way to lose these workers' trust and respect. 

    "Don't assume they are lacking the energy or desire to take on new challenges," she said. "When it comes to age and experience, do be open to the possibility that their input may be very helpful to you. Give them the same opportunities to flourish that you'd give younger employees." 

    You may have a lot of ideas about leading your new team, but it's wise to first get the lay of the land, said Matthew Burr, an Elmira, N.Y.-based HR consultant who has experience managing older workers. 

    "Set up time to truly understand what the employees are working on, and take a true interest in what they value in the workplace," he said. "Engage them in a reverse-mentorship process. Be open about everything you might not know, and also be open to suggestions.

    Arrange one-on-one meetings with your employees to get to know them better, suggests Dan Schawbel, managing partner at Workplace Intelligence, a Boston-based HR research and advisory firm, and author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2018). 

    "You should care about the well-being of the team, ask for feedback—not just give it—and make success about the team and not yourself. While you should show respect for their opinions and empathize with them, you also have to be assertive to ensure you gain their attention and respect."

    While you may be more comfortable texting or e-mailing a colleague, keep in mind that an older worker may prefer a phone call or an in-person chat. 

    "The best way to create a mutual understanding between two people at work is a one-on-one conversation," Schawbel said. "While many managers will try to communicate through text, instant messaging or e-mail, having a face-to-face conversation is the best way to get on the same page.

    Humility and Confidence 

    Recognize that even if you approach your subordinates with respect, they may still be skeptical of your leadership because of your age, Maroney said.

    "If you approach your team members with both confidence and humility, you'll get over those feelings of being an imposter more quickly," she said. "If a new manager is feeling intimidated, they need to win their own head game first. Be clear on the objectives of your position, communicate these objectives clearly, and remember that there is a reason you were chosen versus other candidates who may have more experience."

    Make it clear that you're not trying to do your subordinate's job, said Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School and co-author of Managing the Older Worker (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010).

    "If you are trying to micromanage and tell them how to do their job, you probably are making a mistake," he said. "Supervisors are not supposed to know more about the work than the people doing it. So it helps to let [employees] know what your responsibilities are, that they're different from theirs, and that you need their help."

    Prepare for some older workers to question your decisions or push back on your directions.

    "If you find your authority being questioned or undermined, this is likely a signal you aren't doing enough to establish relationships with your team members," said Brown, the former Freddie Mac supervisor. "People like working with people that they know, like and trust. But it takes time to build this type of relationship."

    Don't make a habit of retreating to your office, she said.

    "Go to lunch, grab coffee, meet with this employee and learn more about them. Share what makes you tick as a manager. Also ask the employee if they have any feedback for you and how you can be a more effective manager."

    This, she said, is how she won over her team at Freddie Mac.

    "I made it a point to get to know each team member—lots of one-on-one meetings and lunches. I also made sure they knew how much I valued their contributions and feedback and ensured there was lots of collaboration with them. And I wasn't afraid to admit what I didn't know and to ask them for help."

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