Leading Older Workers: What Younger Managers Must Do

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Back in 1912, George Bernard Shaw made an observation that stands the test of time, “It’s all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.”

 Those words have special meaning for the young person supervising older colleagues. Not only will the appointment of youth over experience be a shock to the more senior associates, it may be a move that they covertly or overtly resist.

A younger person put in a position to supervise older coworkers faces a delicate challenge, that can be managed successfully with a little interpersonal finesse. Here are some suggestions:

  • Be respectful of the awkwardness the situation may spur. Most likely, one or more of the more senior colleagues was a contender for the job you received. Any gloating or “peacock strutting” will only drive a wedge deeper into the inevitable divide.

  • Don’t apologize for your appointment, you deserved it. But keep it in perspective. For you to succeed over the long haul, you’ll need the cooperation and support of those people who feel as though you bested them.

  • Acknowledge, especially if the gulf is significant, the difference in ages. Do this one-to-one not publicly. Express empathy if an older person seems uncomfortable with the promotion; ask for his or her help:

    “I imagine it feels a little strange reporting to someone so much younger. I know I might feel a little resentful if I were in that situation. I’m thrilled we’re going to be working together and I’m hoping that I can count on you sharing your wisdom. You have so much to contribute here. Your experience and insight are invaluable assets. You can make a significant contribution to this company, and I’m hoping that you will find working together to be a rewarding experience. I ask for your patience, your guidance, and your help.”

  • Be humble; you are going to stumble. You are going to need the help and support, and maybe the forgiveness, of your more experienced associates.

  • Expect your older teammates to be a bit withdrawn initially. At the start, you are likely going to operate without the benefit of the doubt. Prove yourself to be a good, supportive boss who truly does value input, correction and suggestion, and your more senior associates will eventually come around. They may even be your strongest supporters in time.

  • Be open to suggestions, even criticism. Don’t try too hard to prove yourself. Operate confidently but with an air of approachability. If you come across as infallible, no one will step in to save you from a stupid mistake that will be obvious to everyone but you.

    On the other hand, if you make a habit of enlisting the input of your experienced co-workers, and acknowledging their contributions, they will contribute generously and help you accomplish great things.

  • Ask questions (especially early in your assignment), such as: What am I overlooking? What else should we be considering? What’s wrong with this approach? Is there a better way?

    Feel free to not defer to the input you receive, and if you don’t take the advice of your more experienced colleagues, tell them why you decided the way you did.

Keep in mind, everyone responds positively to a good leader at any age. If you believe they need a motivational boost, you can take them to a motivational speech, like Richard Jadick’s. Deal with your more mature colleagues maturely, and you will find them to be loyal allies.

 

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