Mind the Gap: Managing Different Ages at Work

Four strategies for managing a multigenerational workforce

mind the gapIt’s increasingly common to find yourself interviewing for a job with a potential boss who may be a decade or more younger than you. On the flipside, if you’re in your twenties and thirties, you may find yourself managing employees who are your parents’ age—or even your grandparents’ age.

Age discrepancies are the new norm in today’s multigenerational workplace, where four distinct generations (Gen Y, Gen X, Boomers, and Traditionalists) work side by side in the office. Even in more “traditional” management configurations with an older supervisor managing a younger subordinate, generational differences in the workplace have made navigating the manager/employee relationship considerably more complex.

Most would agree that age diversity is good for business. Small business owner William D. Pitney, who is in his early 40s, has two employees—one in her early 60s and the other in her early 20s. Because of the trio’s age and gender differences, Pitney says that they are able to more effectively take into account generational differences among their clients, which has had a greater impact on working with clients of multiple generations as well.

Despite such advantages, it’s not always easy to mix and match different age groups when it comes to managing them. Whether you find yourself reporting to a supervisor who reminds you of your teenager or are the veteran manager of a much younger team, it helps to remember some guidelines to help you with managing different ages at work:

Don’t Assume You Know Everything

Philip S. Chang, partner at the PR firm Carbon, was promoted at a young age for his experience working in national agencies. He soon found himself managing teams of people who were much older and more senior than he was.

Chang quickly discovered that despite age differences, it’s always important to work with people as partners, giving everyone respect for their experience—particularly when they have more experience than you, or possess specialized experience. “When you stop assuming you are the expert, you’re surprised by what other people can show and teach you about what you thought you knew,” says Chang.

Kelly Phillips, cofounder of Red Feather Networking, also emphasizes the important role that respect plays when managing older workers as a younger person. At her last job, while in her 30s, Phillips managed a team that included several women in their 40s and 50s.

“For me the key was showing them respect for their experience and ideas and making decisions based on fact and logic,” say Phillips. “I think that many younger people make the mistake of trying to establish authority by acting like they know better or purposely not taking advice. They think taking advice makes them look weak. It takes a confident person to take advice from their employees, and it shows the employees they are valued and respected.”

Think “Responsibility,” Not “Response”

“Managing older subordinates is akin to managing friends,” says professional development coach Antoine Lane. According to Lane, younger managers supervising older employees sometimes fall victim to trying to achieve a desired response from a subordinate unconditionally—just as they would do with a friend.

Instead, Lane recommends that young managers target their goals toward helping their veteran employees achieve responsibility through conditions. “The manager must demonstrate an unyielding devotion to the company’s standard, or vision, or mission statement, and then leverage that loyalty to gain adherence from the older employee,” explains Lane.

The approach can be applied universally for younger/older pairs that are different genders as well. “One thing that can have a subtle impact is that women often feel that they must outperform the stereotype that women are the weaker vessel,” says Lane. “This can sometimes lead to female managers imposing a very stern, one-dimensional perspective, instead of capitalizing on their unique relational abilities.”

Understand Who You’re Managing

It’s not all about older workers reporting up to younger bosses. In many cases, managers may find themselves to be the eldest member of a much younger team. When it comes to Boomers and Traditionalists—or even Gen X—managing 20-something Gen Yers, the waters can get equally murky.

But learning the right way to manage Gen Y can pay dividends. Bill Rosenthal, CEO of Communispond, suggests that there are many advantages to managing young employees. “They’re comfortable with change, confident about their abilities to create and support the innovations businesses need, willing to work as hard as their elders do if their particular needs are met,” says Rosenthal. “This includes having a very clear picture of what they should do, how they’ll be evaluated, and what the future holds for them. It also includes getting lots of support on the job and recognition for their contributions.”

Rosenthal offers the following tips to help manage younger employees:

  • Don’t make any assumptions based on their age. You don’t represent your age, after all.
  • Get up to speed on technology because they’ll expect it of you.
  • Ask their opinion about your strategy. They’ll bring a different perspective.
  • Be there when you’re wanted. Young employees want feedback.
  • Don’t bristle at questions about your authority or information. They often will question it.
  • Don’t get frustrated with their impatience. Channel it into productive work.

Don’t Try to “Blanket Manage”

As a business owner, woman executive, and multi-board member, Gen Xer Heidi Dent has had ample chance to manage generations both older and younger than herself—from Gen Y through Traditionalists. By doing so, Dent—who is president of human resources software company Hirease—has experienced some positive “hits” from her management efforts, as well as some painful misses.

“It’s a battle daily to determine, do I text, do I email, do I call, do I go sit down—and it’s basically all of the above,” says Dent. “So as a business owner or manager, there is an immense amount of bouncing around to try and facilitate generational preferences and interests.”

One thing Dent has learned through it all is that it can be tough to tailor specific strategies toward managing particular age groups partly because not everyone fits neatly into an age cohort. Some employees fall on the “cusps” of the generations, and thus may display preferences and interests of other generational types besides their primary one.

“There have been many studies on the differences—the difficulty in managing is that you can’t blanket manage anymore,” says Dent. “You have to understand each personality style and preference you are working with and their expectations, which greatly impact your perception of performance.”

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.

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