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How to Handle the Younger Boss / Older Worker Dilemma

By Carol A. Hacker

If you are a younger manager with responsibility for managing people who are older than you, you know what a challenge it can be. One of the biggest challenges for younger managers lies in how they are going to supervise people who are older than them, have more experience than they do, and in some cases are perceived as intimidating. According to a 2008 survey by staffing firm Randstad USA, one-fifth of employed adults are older than their managers. The following tips will help you succeed in managing older workers.

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  1. Don’t misuse your authority. You may be the boss, but if you take an arrogant approach to managing others, you’ll quickly find yourself in trouble. It’s obvious that you are in charge, so don’t push it by constantly reminding your staff that you are commander in chief.
  2. Value their experience. Don’t overlook the fact that older employees have more life experiences than you do simply because they have lived longer and, in most cases, worked more than you have.
  3. Motivation is an inside job. You won’t be able to get inside of their heads and force them to be motivated, but you can build a workplace culture in your department that is motivational in nature. Don’t hold back on recognition and rewards, which are meaningful to people from all generations. Just make sure that what you have to offer is something they would like to have. If you don’t know what they want, ask them.
  4. Provide plenty of training. Don’tassume that just because they are older, they know everything and don’t want or need training and development. And don’t hesitate to ask what they need in terms of additional skills. They know themselves better than you do, and they may have something in mind that would benefit them as well as the department.
  5. Don’t underutilize them because you’re afraid of them. If you fear your older employees or give the impression that you do, you have lost your ability to manage effectively. Get the coaching that you need from your boss or even a mentor if this is a problem. And don’t be afraid to give them assignments and put their talents to good use because you are unsure of yourself.
  6. Remain flexible. Anyone who is employed, regardless of their age, appreciates a supervisor who is flexible and open to creative work arrangements. If you have a need to tightly manage your employees and not allow for some flexibility, you won’t be the kind of manager that anyone would want to work for. This is the 21st century, and your job is to lead like you are in sync with the times, and that includes being open-minded and flexible.
  7. Include them in decisionmaking. One of the best strategies for getting “buy-in” is to include your employees in decisions that affect them. Making all the rules and decisions will be a turnoff for creative minds and experienced personnel. Sometimes, younger managers think that they are getting paid to make all the decisions, so they don’t allow their employees to have any input — that’s a huge mistake!
  8. Don’t assume anything. If you believe that age defines qualifications, energy level, personalities or skills, and abilities, you’re short-changing yourself. Age is relative. You will find younger employees who are mature and wise beyond their years and older workers who can run circles around your entire team with their energy, know-how, and willingness.

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Whether you are a Boomer managing seniors, Generation X managing seniors and/or Boomers, or Generation Y managing any of the above, you have responsibility to your employees to lead with respect, set a good example, and put forth your best effort. You may have some rough days, but they are not insurmountable if you make a solid effort to learn as much as you can about managing from your more experienced employees as well as your superiors.

Carol Hacker is an HR consultant and seminar leader who ranks among the experts in the field of recruiting and retention issues. She’s the author of 13 highly acclaimed business books. Carol can be reached at (770) 410-0517.