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How To Make Managing Someone Older Than You Less Awkward

Young managers don’t have it easy. Here’s how to smooth the way with employees who are years—or decades—your senior.

How To Make Managing Someone Older Than You Less Awkward
Finding commonalities can help bridge divides in the workplace. [Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

You worked hard and finally landed that promotion. Now you’re the boss—and in charge of a number of team members who are significantly older than you, and who may have complicated feelings about reporting to a younger manager.

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“A lot of millennials haven’t done a lot of supervising yet,” says workplace diversity expert Jennifer L. FitzPatrick. “In a way, you may want to look at [the management role] as if you’re coming at it from a different discipline. You’re not going to know everything that the employees who’ve been there longer know, she says. And that will usually make your team stronger.

Get off on the right foot with your reports and defuse any potential conflict by following this expert advice.

Set Aside Your Ego

Lance Vaught, vice president of operations at Penn Station East Coast Subs, started in a management role there nearly a decade ago, when he was 24. Being a young supervisor with so little work experience and supervising people who were expecting their first grandchildren was daunting, he admits.

“You’re not yet proven. You’re not battle-tested,” he says.

Vaught had to earn the respect of people who were 20 years his senior, he says. It may sound trite, but he did so by tamping down any desire to prove he deserved the job and, instead, listening. By getting to know the employees, showing respect for their contributions, and understanding what they needed to get the job done, he soon won them over. It also helped to put in the hours and show his reports that he was working harder than they were, he says.

Find Points Of Connection

FitzPatrick says finding commonalities can help bridge divides in the workplace. Get to know your employees as people. You may find that common interests—sports, hobbies, or even children—can create stronger relationships.

Whatever you do, avoid language that could be considered ageist or create distance. “When you’re generation Y and you say things like, ‘Oh, that was before I was born’ in reference to something, you’re creating more distance between you and your employee,” she says.

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Learn Their Strengths And Use Them

The No. 1 thing any employee wants from a manager is help doing their job well, says performance consultant Gerald Acuff, CEO of business consulting firm Delta Point, Inc. To figure out what your team needs from you, you need to get to know them. Ask questions that show you care about what they have contributed and what their priorities are, he says.

When Acuff was a young sales manager, he was supervising an older salesperson who was No. 1 in the company. After conducting the first sales call himself, he watched his new report do the second one. Acuff was blown away by how good the salesperson was, and it drove home the point that his employees could continue to teach him, even as he managed them.

Give Them Authority

Show your employees that you have confidence in their experience and ability by giving them the autonomy to make decisions, Vaught says. After all, they know what they’re doing—let them have some decision making power. Not only does it make the employee feel good because of the vote of confidence, it also frees up your time to devote to other issues that need attention, he says.

Address The Elephant In The Room

If there’s conflict or resentment over your appointment, you may need to address it head on, says FitzPatrick. If the person you’re supervising applied for the job and didn’t get it, for example, and it’s clear that they’re harboring resentment, have a discussion.

“If someone did apply to the job, sometimes it’s really a good idea to just hit it head on and just say, ‘Hey. You know I just want to let you know I have respect for your abilities. I know that you attempted to get the job.’ Sometimes just making that comment can really help, as most people are going to respond to a little bit of vulnerability,” she says. You might also talk to that person about their goals and help them find assignments or ways to contribute that align with their career goals.

Supervising someone older than you doesn’t have to be an angst-ridden experience. Ask questions, don’t be too eager to prove yourself, and show your employees respect for what they know, and you may very well avoid many of the common challenges young managers face.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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