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Managing Older Employees? Leadership Tips for Young Managers

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017  |  Business News Daily

Congratulations! You’ve been promoted to a leadership position just a few years into your career. You’re now responsible for managing a team of employees and executing important strategy work for your company.

But as a young manager, what do you do if some of your direct reports are older – and potentially more experienced – than you? Although you may be qualified for your new leadership role, you may worry that your older employees won’t respect your authority, which makes it difficult to motivate your team and deal with conflicts.

Business News Daily asked HR and leadership experts for their advice on successfully leading your team, despite gaps in age and experience, and earning the trust and confidence of your older employees.

You can’t gain respect by simply commanding it, said Rishav Gupta, CEO of iCoachFirst. Instead, you should make it clear that you want to get to know your team members as individuals, recognizing their individual strengths and work habits rather than bucketing them by generation or other characteristics.

“Don’t put people into a standard mold,” Gupta said. “Discuss real and perceived differences in approach and perspective, and leverage what each person brings to the table – one generation’s skill set isn’t more important than another’s. Teams need all of these strengths to execute projects successfully.”

“Be respectful, curious and open-minded,” added Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of Uniquely HR. “Find out how they came to be in this job, what excites them and how they like to be managed.”

Gupta advised setting up “knowledge-sharing sessions” for your new team so everyone can get to know each other and vocalize their ideas and opinions. This is helpful for teams with different generations that possess different skill sets, as it allows everyone an opportunity to highlight their perspective and its benefits, he said.

“For example, a boomer could share … why details are important to keep the team on track, while a millennial could talk through their creative processes to get the collective group thinking more out of the box,” Gupta told Business News Daily. “By creating opportunities for teams to come together, swap knowledge and get on the same page, team members not only gain more mutual understanding and respect, they also recognize their manager appreciates what each individual brings to the table and wants to learn from them all.”

Many young people come into an organization looking to make a change, said Adam Povlitz, president of Anago Cleaning Systems. When managing someone older than you, he said, it’s important to understand how and why they are doing things a certain way before you change it.

“While ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ should never be used as an excuse, sometimes it’s always been done that way for reasons only a veteran would know,” Povlitz added.

Gupta agreed, noting that older employees may perceive that you’re “shaking things up for the sake of it.” Make it clear that the changes are important to overall business goals, he said, and take the time to explain the rationale behind it.

“Younger generations don’t shy away from being wrong and tend to have a ‘fail fast’ mindset that frees them to make mistakes and quickly pivot as necessary while there is still gas in the tank,” said Gupta. “Team members with an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’… mindset aren’t necessarily averse to change; it just means they need to understand … the approach to get on board.”

In a team dynamic where there is a significant age gap between manager and employee, it’s natural that some competition may arise. The young leader may feel like they have to “outdo” their older employees to prove their competence, but this can breed insubordination and resentment, said Brendan Reid, senior vice president of marketing at Ceridian.

“Make a point to be the employee’s biggest supporter,” he said. “You need to go out of your way to make sure the staff member knows that you’re on their team [and] you’re personally invested in their success. Only when an employee genuinely believes you’re a partner in their success will the competitiveness subside.”

One way to encourage support and collaboration is to ask your employees for help, especially when it comes to learning a skill they possess.

“Sometimes we feel like asking for help creates a weakness in the relationship between manager and their staff, [but] it can actually help to build loyalty and trust to show vulnerability,” said Nova Woodrow, psychotherapist and workplace coach. “It can be as simple as ‘Can you show me how you produced that chart? I’d like to learn.'”

Managers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of communicating and giving feedback in the way each team member responds to best, Gupta said.

“Millennials are used to getting regular feedback from managers and a shoutout on Slack for a job well done, whereas boomers usually prefer for their manager to stop by their desk to thank them for staying late to bring a project over the finish line,” he said. “Flexible managers who communicate regularly with their teams will have more productive, happy and loyal teams.”

It’s also important to make sure you encourage this practice of open, honest communication across your team.

“If everyone … is very transparent and open about expectations, goals and decisions, age becomes a non-factor,” said Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks. “When you are making the right calls as a manager, and everyone can see it, even those who are older than you can see the ‘why’ behind what you ask them to do and what you expect from them.”

Additional reporting by Brittney Morgan. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.