Today's workplace is more diverse than ever before with people from as many as four or five different generations working together in one office. Millennials are joining the workforce in greater numbers and recently surpassed Generation X as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. At the same time, more older workers are delaying retirement and working far longer than previous generations. While the increased generational diversity brought on by these changes can enrich a workplace by providing it with a host of different perspectives, it can also raise uncomfortable issues, particularly when a younger employee is promoted quickly and is now managing someone older and potentially more experienced.
How can you be someone's boss when they're old enough to be your parent?
Truthfully, this not an easy situation to navigate, say experts. Young managers, insecure in their new role, may be threatened by the age and experience of their employee. "We were raised to respect our elders, and some may have difficultly identifying the line between respect and authority when traditional roles are reversed," says Marla Tabaka, Inc. Magazine author & Business Growth Expert. This can make managing difficult and contentious. "Young managers can easily become frustrated when an older employee expresses his or her viewpoint and opinions in an authoritative way—they feel as though they're being told what to do."
Older workers on the other hand, may feel indignant about being managed by someone younger and with potentially less on-the-job experience.
So how can you successfully establish a positive authoritative relationship with someone older?
Below are some do's and don'ts to help you succeed.
Don't make assumptions. Some studies have shown members of different generations may behave differently in the workplace and may have different attitudes about everything from how they work to how they view their work-life balance. Other studies, however, contradict those findings, concluding that in many cases generational differences are overblown. Other research illustrates that regardless of how they differ, employees from different generations still share common career goals and expectations. So while it may sometimes be useful to think about potential generational differences among your employees, due to these mixed findings it may ultimately be more beneficial to adjust your management style based on individual characteristics, rather than age.
Don't be insensitive. Be aware of the emotions the older person may be feeling now that you are his or her manager. "Remember they may well feel a sense of resentment or inadequacy for never getting to the level you've got to at half their age," says Margie Warrell, bestselling author of "Stop Playing Safe." "Don't rub it in their face but acknowledge them, defer to them and ask for their help and advice as much as you can. It will make them feel valued and when people fee valued they are more engaged, whatever the mission."
Don't embrace stereotypes. For example, don't assume your older worker isn't technologically savvy. "To view any employee as technically inept or unable to adjust to new trends will only hold you and your team back," says Tabaka. "The more senior employee has seen technology and trends change for more years than the young manager has been in the workplace; this is nothing new to them."
Don't be afraid to assert your authority. "I've also heard from young managers and founders who struggle with telling an older person what to do, so they don't," says Tabaka. "The result? The company ends up paying an employee who is not carrying out their job due to poor direction and communication."
Do clear the air. "Millennials now make up the largest part of our workforce, but that doesn't mean people are accustomed to younger bosses quite yet," says Tabaka. "The young manager should initiate a discussion about the age difference if any discomfort exists—asking questions and showing interest in their employee’s opinion and experience." While these conversations can be challenging Warrell says you can begin by acknowledging his or her experience. Say: "I know you've been working in this industry/company/profession a lot longer than me and have a wealth of know-how and insight that I don't, but I'm wondering if…or would like if you could…or need you to…" Having this conversation may be awkward but can help lay the foundation for a better working relationship.
Do be confident. If you aren't secure in your skills and your ability, your team won't respect you. Recognize you were promoted for a reason. But remember, be confident—not egotistical. "It's best to keep an open mind and know when it's time to slow down and simply listen," says Tabaka.
Do show respect for your elders. "It may be old fashioned manners, but it's not out of date and it's certainly good advice when it comes to managing someone who is older than you," says Warrell. "Sure you may have been promoted above them and bring creativity insight and energy to the table that they don't. But that doesn't mean they don't bring anything or deserve a little respect from you." Tabaka agrees. "It's natural that some resentment exists when someone younger is promoted through the ranks faster than someone with more experience," she says. "The older employee may be protecting their pride, be patient with them."
Do follow traditional management rules. Remember the success of any manager comes from their ability to build a trusting relationship with his or her employees, which is something that really has nothing to do with age.