6 ways to manage employees who are older than you.
I was enlisted in the army at the ripe old age of 25. My basic training instructor was about 19 years old. At that age, everyone over 21 seems like an old man. From the first day I could sense his hesitation when dealing with me. Should he “bark” orders at me like everyone else? Could I keep up physically with the group? (of course!) After the first week I approached him and said something like, “Your job is to be an instructor, and my job is to be a soldier, so try not to worry about how old I am.” After that I could sense a lot more confidence in him when speaking to me.
Sometimes a young manager will end up with a team of people who are quite older than him or her. When you are 40 managing a 50-year-old, you usually don’t think twice about it. But, when you are 28 managing a 45-year-old you sometimes can’t help but think about the age gap and how it impacts your professional relationship.
So, what are some of the best practices for managing people who are older than you?
1. Address it with them. If you’ve earned it, you never have to apologize for being appointed to a managerial position. But you also don’t have to bury your head in the sand about your age differential. This shows right off the bat that you are mature and wise enough to be cognizant of possibly sensitive issues. (They might dismiss it immediately as they don’t feel comfortable opening their feelings to someone 20 years their junior. So, if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t force the issue.)
2. Don’t focus on age, focus on experience. With age often comes increased wisdom. (often, but not always!) Utilize these people for their experiences and knowledge. If you show them that you appreciate their input, they will come to respect you for utilizing it.
3. Be inclusive! Don’t hang out only with the younger crowd and don’t exclude them from any group activities.
4. Ask for advice. Do you have some older friends, family, co-worker friends you can lean on who may have been in a similar situation on either end? Ask them how they navigated this territory or what mistakes they felt their younger manager made when dealing with them.
5. Don’t trivialize the way things have been done. If a 15-year team veteran says, “This is the way it’s been working until now”, dig a little deeper before you make any sudden changes. You may be right, but show them the respect they deserve before tossing aside a 15-year-old practice. Also, if you’re wrong, you at least took the time to make a substantive judgement and not one which is simply dismissive of an older practice because it’s old.
6. Don’t give them attitude and don’t make condescending assumption. “You probably think Twitter is a total time waster right”? Nobody likes attitude, but someone who has been working for 25 years likes it a lot less than some of their much younger co-workers.
At the end of the day, just remember at any age, most people want the same thing in the office. Meaningful work, positive feedback, an upbeat atmosphere, and appreciation for their contributions. Stick to that format and you can’t go wrong!
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