Landing a management job in your twenties is a stunning achievement. It can also be the very definition of “mixed blessing.” Yes, your career is on track. You’ve also inherited at least one team member who’s double your age. That shouldn’t be a problem. Except admit it ––– even before your first day, you worried that older staffers are set in their ways and disinterested in new solutions to old problems. They likely have some preconceived notions about you as well. So before you start butting heads, here are some suggestions on how to manage senior team members.
Build Respect, Not Friendships
According to one study, almost four out of ten workers had a younger boss –– and 16% reported to someone at least ten years younger. Becoming a young manager is isolating. You might have been chummy with a few co-workers. Now you’re their supervisor. Going out for drinks after work is going to be awkward. Yet older, senior managers aren’t trying to get to know you better either. If you are starting at a new company, then the staff is brand new to you as well.
Hopefully you have some non-work friends because you won’t be making any pals in your job. You shouldn’t be trying to either. Getting close to one or two subordinates risks being seen as playing favorites. If you are friendlier with peers, the senior staffers are going to notice. From day one, focus on gaining respect. That means doing a good job and treating everyone equally.
Age Brings Experience
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over the next decade the percentage of people working or looking for work will increase the fastest for people over the age of 55. Although this labor force participation rate took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s little evidence that older unemployed workers will simply retire.
Whether you are working at a new company or managing an unfamiliar department, older staffers are a godsend. They understand the corporate culture. They have a wealth of institutional knowledge. While you might see them as being resistant to change, they may actually remember a manager trying the same thing you’re about to implement and failing. So listen to their concerns and try to incorporate their advice. Don’t change everything at once. By taking your time, you’ll be giving your staff the opportunity to warm up to you.
Just don’t forget that while they may have loads of experience being old doesn’t guarantee wisdom. You earned this job. The higher ups believe you can do it. So don’t be derailed by dissension.
Support the Seniors
If you’re curious about how to manage senior team members without playing favorites this advice may seem counterintuitive. It’s just you’re likely more comfortable with your peer group. You speak a similar language and likely are on the same socials. So go out of your way to compliment older staffers when it is warranted. If they make a suggestion that’s worthy of acknowledgment do so –– and do it in front of others. Because of our innate biases doling out a little extra attention to the people we aren’t comfy with is often the best way to be fair.
Respect Their Differences
Don’t start the job being process orientated. Focus on the results. Parents have to choose their battles. That’s why there are cello-playing valedictorians with pink hair and piercings. Bosses need to choose their battles as well. It probably doesn’t matter if some of your team takes notes on a piece of paper rather than a tablet. They might prefer in-person communication to email. What matters is that they get the job done.
On the other hand, older people value flexibility over feedback. They likely have more non-work obligations than you do. So if you have the power to adjust scheduling, do so. This doesn’t mean you should be a floor mat –– if they breeze in ten minutes later for a meeting without an explanation, it must be addressed. Still, if you can accommodate their offspring’s soccer schedule it can go a long way toward creating loyalty. Finally, avoid sending emails at ten p.m. Unlike 24/7 millennials, most older folks have a clear division between work time and downtime. If you step back, maybe you’ll see the wisdom in that as well.
Finally, although it’s illegal to ask someone’s age in the workplace that rarely stops anyone. Anticipate the question of how old you are. If you don’t want to give away your birthdate, have a rote response like “Old enough to do this job.” You’ve got this.
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