Work Smarter//

6 Keys to Managing People Who Are Older Than You

How to navigate the younger boss/older employee dynamic successfully.

10'000 Hours / Getty Images
10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Your hard work paid off, and now your job responsibilities include managing other people. While being a manager comes with challenges for everyone, those challenges are unique when you’re the supervisor to someone years (or decades) older than you. And given today’s multi-generational workforce — where five generations are working side-by-side — this is more common than you’d think.

To help you navigate the older employee/younger manager dynamic with more ease and less stress, Thrive talked to Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., a professor in Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, to learn these tips:

Work on building trust

Trust is crucial to forging a strong working relationship with your direct reports. One way to build that trust is to provide a safe space for older employees to solicit advice from you and raise concerns without being met with an eye rolls or ageist remarks. To lay that foundation of trust, small gestures go a long way, says Sutton. She recommends making it a point to acknowledge your direct reports’ ideas in group meetings and give credit when they are implemented. And when you’re giving feedback, critical or positive, avoid any age-related comments like “that’s something my parents would suggest.” 

Remember to listen

Chances are, people who have been in the workforce for a long time have had ample experiences that could benefit your organization. Even if you’re in a supervisor position, make it clear that you’re open to their feedback as well and learning from them. Solicit their input, and be sure to spend as much time — if not more — listening as you do talking during your one-on-ones. 

Bridge the communication divide 

Generational difference might be most apparent in communication styles. One great example of this showed up in a recent New York Times piece titled “Typing These Two Letters Will Scare Your Younger Co-Workers.” In the article, a Gen X-er detailed a supposed faux pas he had been making at work: “When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that,” he wrote. “However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is ‘kk.’ To write ‘O.K.’ or ‘K,’ they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead.” The solution to sending unintentionally mixed or even insulting signals: Have an open conversation. “Simply asking about the person’s preferred communication method enables managers to build strong relationships with each of their direct reports,” says Sutton.

Let go of assumptions

Sutton says younger managers might assume their direct reports are “stuck in their ways” — whether that means being uncomfortable with technology, or less open to new ideas — which is not always the case. If you’re a younger manager looking to forge better connections with older direct reports, it’s important to challenge those assumptions. You can go one step further and be open and flexible on working styles — if they have a different approach that still allows them to meet their goals, consider letting them do it their way.

Get interested in their personal lives — and challenges

Making an effort to learn more about your direct reports’ personal lives is one way to ensure you’re able to better support them in the workplace, says Sutton. “Sometimes employees are experiencing challenges — feeling left out of promotion opportunities, managing elder care responsibilities, planning retirement — that are specific to their life or career phase. While you may not have all the answers, it helps employees to know they can come to their manager in confidence,” she explains. “Better yet, after the conversation, if you learn about company resources that may be helpful to the employee, send them the information.”

Don’t second-guess yourself

One tendency of some managers who have older direct reports is to “tone down” their presence because they’re self-conscious about age differences. While experts caution against a domineering managing style, it’s important to “own” your position — which includes knowing when to be a firm decision-maker. Remember that you’re in a leadership role for a reason.

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