Managing Older Colleagues

The advice young leaders need to manage older colleagues. You just landed the big promotion you’ve been working toward or been asked to lead a task force of colleagues from across the organization and the new opportunity is exciting. But, if you’re honest, you also feel just a bit uneasy about managing colleagues with significantly more experience and years with the company. Here’s how to step up without stepping on toes.  

Effective Strategies For Leading People Older Than You 

Five generations are working side-by-side in organizations across North America for the first time, bringing their own experiences, expectations and ideas about how work gets done. Almost three-quarters of workers 55 and older report to younger bosses, according to the new book The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.  

Just like racial, ethnic and gender diversity, age diversity can create strong results when managed effectively. Research shows multigenerational workforces are more effective with less turnover than those without age diversity, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Both older and younger workers are more productive in companies with mixed-age work teams.  

For emerging leaders early in their careers, however, it can sometimes feel a bit awkward when first called upon to manage people of their parents’ generation.   

Age is just a number 

“Conversations about generations can sometimes begin and end with birth dates and years, events of historical significance and the obligatory comments on technology,” explains multigenerational researcher and expert James Pogue, Ph.D. “When a conversation begins with ‘This is why we are different…’ it can be the same as saying ‘This is why we are better…’ or ‘This is why you don’t understand.’” Instead, he advises focusing on shared goals and mining one another’s unique perspectives and skills for new insights and fresh approaches.  

If you are an emerging leader with the opportunity to manage workers older than you, embrace it. And then consult this advice for the best way forward.  

No need to apologize. Your skills, hard work and potential earned you a leadership position. Humility is admirable in leaders of any age, but don’t sell yourself short. Your team needs you to lead.  

Hone your listening skills. You don’t have to have all the answers. At every stage of your career, a hunger for new knowledge is the quickest way to advance. Talk to mentors and colleagues at your new level to gain perspective and advice. Pogue talks about the vulnerability paradox where sharing your areas of concern actually enables you to build closer relationships with your team and become a more effective leader.  

Mobilize the experience of others. Tap into the experience of your seasoned team members to accelerate your learning, make the most of your shared strengths and ensure everyone is valued for their unique contributions.  

Be you.  Every organization has its own culture and your behavior needs to reflect that, but it won’t work to adopt someone else’s management style or mimic characteristics that don’t come naturally to you. Lean into your strengths and be the leader only you are meant to be.  

Respect (and celebrate) differences. While you’re being you, allow others to be them. Perhaps some older workers prefer taking notes on paper while you always work from your laptop. Or you may like a casual, open-door approach to working together while others crave a bit more structure. See the benefits of varied approaches rather than asking everyone to fit into your mold.  

“It’s the difference between putting people in boxes of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and recognizing what individuals in varying age groups bring to the table,” Pogue adds.  

Deal quickly with microaggressions. Especially as a young woman managing older men, your expectations around how the genders interact may differ. If you experience unintentional slights, bona fide microaggressions or active resistance, politely call it out and assert your well-earned leadership. If necessary, seek support from a more senior leader. 

Do your homework. Now that you’re in charge, it can be tempting to quickly implement changes to make your mark. Learn the ropes first, gather data and approach your team with solid reasons for new goals and ways of working.   

Provide opportunities for growth. Recognize that team members of all ages seek growth opportunities. Senior workers may desire a stretch assignment just as much as a more junior colleague. Cross-generational mentoring is one way to share knowledge and build skills across your team.  

The PricewaterhouseCoopers Annual Global CEO Survey in 2015 found that nearly two-thirds of organizations had specific strategies to promote diversity and inclusion, yet only 8% included age as part of the mix. That’s a miss. Now that you’re in charge, embrace age diversity on your team as a critical asset to boost performance. 

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