Sharp, Young Thing: How Do You Manage Someone Older Than You?

by Stephanie Stern

My mom called me the other day. “I have a new manager,” she explained, “and he’s younger than you.” To her credit, she wasn’t particularly upset by this. She’s a personal trainer at a gym in New York and is used to being surrounded by 20-somethings. But it didn’t help that he had kicked off their first meeting by having all of the trainers say how long they’d been working at that gym. When my mom answered 1997, his jaw dropped and he stammered, “I was only in junior high!” He then was too awkward to make eye contact with my mom for the rest of the meeting.

It happens somewhat frequently in today’s working world that younger managers are in charge of much older staff. It can be tough, especially if the older person feels resentful for being passed over, or if the younger person lacks confidence in herself and her own abilities.

Having been in the position to manage older staff a few times, I know firsthand some of the tensions that can build, and some pitfalls to avoid. Really, even when managing people older than you, the same basic principles apply that you would use for anyone: respect the people that report to you, treat them as individuals, and be open, but confident in your own abilities as a manager. Here are a few good rules of thumb:

Don’t Assume They Are You

When I was only a year or so out of college, I was put in charge of a project and ended up managing a guy named Dave. He was probably in his late 40s or so. I assumed that, like me and everyone else I knew, Dave would be interested in growing in his role, in advancing, and that he would want to take on new tasks and learn new skills. It didn’t take long after I assigned him something outside of his previous pattern of work before he came to me to say that he wasn’t sure about this new task. It became clear that he wanted to stick to the work that he was comfortable with and good at. He liked the mastery he had over the tasks he was well rehearsed in. That’s not to say that he couldn’t learn new things, only that he wasn’t interested in doing so for the challenge of it.

It was a good lesson for me that not everyone is looking for the same things at work. It’s obvious, of course, but I had assumed that everyone had a desire to take on new challenges. This was not an assumption that proved true for Dave, and more generally, not a good assumption to make. It would have been better for me to have asked Dave what his interests and goals were before I imposed my own ideas.

Particularly if you are young and managing a significantly older person, it might be that they get something else out of the work than you do. This is true for my mom. She does take pleasure at growing in her mastery of the field and goes to workshops and trainings, but she has no interest in moving up, which would mean managing people rather than working with clients. Once I understood Dave, I didn’t try to push him in the direction I would have gone in his position. Instead, I made sure to express appreciation for work he’d done well, and if there was anything new to learn, to make sure to approach it slowly and patiently.

Respect Their Experience

Regardless of their background, just by virtue of the fact that an older employee has been in the working world for many years has given them a unique perspective and experience. Treat it as just this: a perspective to carefully consider. I work with a woman named Jill, who has many years of experience in marketing. I have learned a lot from her, and often seek out her advice, particularly when it comes to graphic design and traditional media. Her perspective has been incredibly valuable, and has often saved me from repeating mistakes that have been made before.

However, she can sometimes seem out of date, especially when it comes to marketing via social media, and she is generally not that interested in trying new approaches. Sometimes I find it worth it to try something new, even when it means going against Jill’s opinions and even though it might mean making a mistake. It often helps when there is an example of another organization that has tried something similar successfully, and I can speak to wanting to test their approach. When moving forward against Jill’s advice, however, I do always try make sure that she knows that her perspective was understood, considered, and appreciated.

It’s OK to Be the Boss

When I first started managing people, I struggled with being direct and taking charge. This was true for everyone I managed, but it was especially difficult for me with people who were significantly older than I was. I wanted to be collaborative and nice, and I felt timid asserting authority. It didn’t take long for me to see that this was just confusing, and ultimately unhelpful. Being clear became more important than being nice, even when doling out work that no one wanted to do. I learned that I could be clear and direct while still being kind and appreciative.

One specific lesson I learned was to stop using the word “we.” It was more helpful and clear when I specified who would do what, rather than hide behind what we might accomplish as a team. Being in charge sometimes means telling people what to do. It can be done nicely by checking in with them and making sure that works and appreciating what your team does. It can still feel authoritative and uncomfortable to me still, but I’ve learned that it is necessary.

Like all good manager-employee relationships, the core of managing someone older than you is to treat them as an individual. This means getting to know and understand them as a person, including what previous experience they have that can be helpful, and what motivates them and how to encourage them. You may end up working with some cranky staff that feel grumpy that they aren’t in your shoes, but the only thing you can control is how you treat them. Respect the people who report to you, treat them as individuals, and be open, but confident in your own abilities as a manager.

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

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