Managing people is not easy. In addition to doing the excellent work that got you promoted in the first place, you now have to oversee the work, careers, and personalities of others — many of whom might work very differently from you.
To make things even more complicated, we are now working in an unprecedented multigenerational workplace consisting, in some organizations, of five distinct generations of workers, from Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers (many of whom are often working many years past traditional retirement age) to Millennials and the newly arriving Gen Zs (who often want to work very differently from earlier generations). Some teams today include colleagues up to five decades apart in age with a wide variety of experiences, expectations, and attitudes about work.
One result is an upending of the traditional hierarchy where bosses were generally older than their direct reports. According to a CareerBuilder survey, a whopping 38 percent of Americans today actually report to a boss who is younger than they are.
So, what do you do if you are one of those younger bosses? How should you handle the possibly awkward situation? Here are some of my top tips:
Don’t assume the age difference is a problem.
Do not assume that the older person minds the age difference. There’s no need to apologize for being young or even to point out the issue if you don’t sense any concern or discomfort. Some older workers actually like reporting to someone with a different generational perspective. Trust that you are in your leadership role for a reason, and don’t be afraid to be the boss.
Listen. A lot.
On the other hand, if an employee you oversee does comment about your age or appears uncomfortable or even resentful, there are some steps you can take. Spend some time getting to know the older employee. Ask questions about his or her experience, opinions, expertise, and interests. Find commonalities like books you’ve both liked, professionals you admire, or podcasts you both listen to. When you give your colleague time and respect, she’s more likely to reciprocate.
Be flexible in how people complete work.
Try to focus on end results and be flexible about how people accomplish their work. You might find that older employees (or any employees, for that matter) have ways of working that are different from yours—such as the formality of their email messages, the amount they want to talk about their personal lives in the office, or their comfort level with certain technology—and that is okay. (Of course if someone is lacking a skill they need to get their job done, that should be addressed through direct feedback or additional training.)
If necessary, address the age issue directly.
Be willing to have a direct conversation about the age difference if you feel it’s become a real problem. Keep it short and direct, such as, “I’ve noticed that you comment a lot about my age. I respect you a lot and believe we can work together well and achieve our team’s goals. Can you let me know if there’s anything I can do differently to help us work well together?” You don’t have to do everything the person might ask for, but having this conversation shows that you want to make the relationship work. While you may never be beloved by this employee, it is your job as the manager to make your best attempt and be explicit about your intention to support her.
In general, do your best to be open, flexible, and communicative, and you just might find that the younger boss–older employee dynamic is a refreshing and positive remix.
Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace. Her book, The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, was published by Harper Collins in May 2019.