It’s been said that with age comes responsibility so it comes as a surprise to some workers that many companies are hiring young workers to manage the older and more experienced ones. But in an economic downturn it makes sense that older workers get shed from company payroll to be replaced by younger workers with less experience and less onerous salary demands. And for some this isn’t always been a bad thing.
A research conducted by The Family and Work Institute reflects a surprisingly positive opinion of younger bosses from their older subordinates. Majority of the older employees with younger employers believed that their young bosses were more competent, and more responsive, and more supportive of their needs than managers of any other generation. Fifty-nine percent of Gen X and Baby Boomer employees believed that their young bosses were competent and capable, and an astounding 79 percent of Matures (aged 60 and over) believed that their young bosses were competent and capable in their positions.
“I appreciate the way she has come up to sit in that position. One thing I get to learn from her is to innovate. I get to know the latest way of looking at the world and the business, which we never did when I was of her age,” says Prashanth S, senior manager at CareerBuilder.com. “We were assertive then and very aggressive now. The current market needs aggression, which she infuses.”
Still this does not belie the fact that many of the older workers are not always enthused about having to report to a younger figure of authority. For many who are old enough to be the young boss’ parent, taking direction from a “kid” is a bitter pill to swallow. Research also indicates that Baby Boomers are typically the generation at most odds with the conflicting management styles of the Gen Y group.
With the ever-changing face of the workplace environment, some employees are finding it difficult to contend with the colliding ethics of the multi-generational work force.
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Anything you can do, I can do better
Often times, an older employee facing a manager decades younger feels that they have more knowledge and expertise for the position. The young boss may feel threatened and feel his confidence diminish in the presence of an older subordinate. “I had several younger bosses. I’m not inclined to repeat the experience,” says Deni Tavares, advisor at Cultivating Our Sisterhood International Association (COSIA), an organization dedicated to empowering women and youth. “It’s a case of ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’ which is a problem within any work environment,” she says. Workplace conduct is largely dependent on one’s opinion of one another so a young boss, especially if it’s a first time in a management position may feel inclined to overcompensate and distrust any employee, young or old, who question his authority.
According to Rick Brenner, management consultant based in Cambridge, Mass, trouble can develop “if the boss feels it necessary to assert dominance over the capable older subordinate— the boss can feel threatened. This can lead the boss to behave in ways that are insulting to or demeaning for the subordinate,” he says. Some examples of inexperienced young boss conduct may include refusing to be accountable for his mistakes, or blaming others for them, Brenner says. And while there are particular issues at stake for a young boss managing an older staff, the bottom line is that anyone in a leadership role is bound to feel offended if people underneath him question his capacity to lead. Trust is the best advice here. While the elder statesman may have all the answers, it’s important to realize that someone else might also have those answers but reach them in a new and different way. It could take a little longer but any employee, old or young, should trust and wait for the young manager to figure things out.
The know-it-all who knows very little
“If a young boss comes into the job with the attitude that they know it all, they will undoubtedly run into problems,” says Mark Vance, chief marketing officer of Aquion Water Treatment Products. “I made my fair share of mistakes usually driven by inability, at the time, to see the value of input from others. Usually, this type of young manager will be the one with least amount of management experience— perhaps it could be his first time in a management position. He may have an MBA from Harvard and have several years at a high profile company. As impressive as his credentials may be, if the new kid on the block doesn’t know how to convert past experiences with the current work climate, he is headed for disaster. He will give orders, commandeer radical new ideas, and refuse to listen to anyone or let anyone else contribute. These are the typical signs of an overcompensating boss trying to do too much too fast. And this often translates to micromanagement of employees, which is never a good thing.
“Micromanagement destroys employee morale, increases staff turnover and negatively impacts work performance,” says Dana Dixon, a claims specialist at the Association for Child Development. Dixon, like many of her peers, doesn’t take issue with the age of a supervisor, but rather the management style of those in charge. “Practice coupled with management courses can produce a more effective…more successful, younger manager,” Dixon says. Vance agrees that employees will give the young boss a fair chance at success if they are treated with respect and are acknowledged for their efforts. So give the kid a break and emphasize the strength that each side has to offer to the company. If differing generations can build on teamwork, soon inconsequential errors will be just that. Inconsequential.
Old enough but not good enough to lead
Resentment can also arise out of older workers reporting to highly competent and experienced young employers. This happens when the older worker is passed over for the same or similar position. Jealousy plays a large part in creating tension in a multi-generational workforce: Older workers often feel usurped by a younger, vibrant worker with a completely different set of skills and ethics. “The younger boss is in itself a statement about the status of the older subordinate’s career. That statement can be difficult to accept,” says Brenner and this can lead to shame and loss of self-esteem for the older worker. “It is the expression of these hurts by the older subordinate that takes the form of difficulty in the relationship with the boss.”
To alleviate the tension, the one in the leadership position must make an effort to bring the team together under the same umbrella. Older workers in turn need to appreciate and value the contributions of the manager so that the young leader can show a similar deference to the subordinate. “It can be tough to take orders from somebody younger than you are. And it can be hard to give direction to somebody older than you are. But good managers and good employees find a way to make it work,” writes Donald Trump, CEO of the Trump organization, in his blog. “Just like younger workers can bring fresh ideas and new techniques, older workers bring incredible insight and knowledge,” he says
Tips for building trust
For any employee, the key to good workplace relationship is trust. To accomplish a mutually beneficial relationship, here are some suggestions for workplace harmony for all generations. Start by listening to what the other is saying. Listening is sometimes just as important as doing, and people who are doing the talking will greatly appreciate you for it. Acknowledge the accomplishments of your boss. It may be a simple, “good idea” or “the meeting went well” but letting someone know that they’ve done a good job makes them view you with profound appreciation which is likely to be reciprocated.
Ask for help when you don’t know how to handle a situation. There is nothing more flattering than being asked for someone’s advice. Recognize and respect your differences in age. Even if your young boss has a style of dress and speech that is less deferential than yours, respect it and appreciate it— differences are what make new ideas happen. The manager with a penchant for indie-rock can just as well respect you for your immense love of the Beatles.
Speak up if something is bothering you. Trust is best built on open communication so if there is an idea that you want to share, don’t be shy. Even if it’s not always received and implemented, a boss of any age will appreciate the initiative you take in helping the company grow its bottom line. Learn from each other because as much as you have the years on your young boss, he or she will likely have some new ways to resolving an issue. When you look around, the workplace is filled with learning opportunity from every colleague, boss and CEO. And who can’t do with a little more education? For more, please check out: The Politics Series: The Politics of Facebook Friending your Colleagues | The Politics of being a Woman on the Job: Why can’t we all just get along? | The Politics of Being Young on the Job: Managing the Kid Boss | The Politics of being cute on the job: Are you too Sexy for the Workplace? | The Politics of the bad boss | The Politics of Office Romance The Lists: | Five Ways to Battle the Office Backstabber | Ten Signs that You Might be a Difficult Employee Everything in between: Tips for managing the Millennial Generation | When You’re Smarter than the Boss | Knowing When to Speak Up and When Not to |Equal Work, Unequal Pay: What to do if You’re the Victim of Gender Discrimination Do you need advice dealing with awful coworkers, bosses and other workplace issues? Find the author on Twitter @JiHyun42 or email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell her all about it. You could be featured in an upcoming article!