5 Ways To Overcome Your Fear of Managing Employees Older Than You
I first began managing other people in my mid 20’s. I worked at a Fortune 500 company with over 150,000 employees and was given a small team to lead. Of the five team members, most were close to me in age, and whom I had few concerns as their supervisor. Then there was James, who was in his 50’s and who had a daughter the same age as me. I never told him my age, but when he would talk about her, I almost felt like he was talking about me. I would smile and laugh about “those days” even though I, too, had gone to the same concert that past weekend. It took me close to a year to gain the confidence I needed to effectively manage an older employee. And even 10 years later, I still approach those situations with a certain level of caution.
It’s common for many first-time managers to be uncomfortable in this situation, when they manage people significantly older in age. Perhaps it’s simply the fear of having to discipline someone with more experience. Maybe it’s the false belief that the manager should always be the expert. Or it could simply be the fact that one does not know how to relate to someone with so much more experience, in life and at the office. They did, after all, grow up at a different time when work and life was different than the one your know. Regardless, it’s normal to feel a little awkward when you have employees quite a bit older than you. We’ve all been there.
Much later in my career now, I see mistakes of new managers that I, too, once made. Cavalier change-the-world attitudes, hasty decision-making for short-term impact and overcommitting to getting things done. This energy is great to see in new managers and is something that can be effective in motivating their employees. Yet, while a young team will look up to a veteran managers, a first time manager must spend time earning respect and trust by their organizations when the situation is reversed.
Here are five tips for helping you overcome your fear of managing older employees:
- Set a Tone – It is ok to establish expectations early on, but do so in a down-to-earth, confident, professional manner. Setting a tone and outlining expectations for you entire team helps establish your authority and will indicate that you mean business. Abuse of power or arrogance, though, can easily undermine any stock you may hold. Stick to fairness, honesty and openness in your communication and you will be successful. Employees who are older than you will expect professionalism and respect, so be sure to carry yourself in an appropriate manner. Hint: Don’t talk about your wild weekend during your staff meeting.
- Listen Carefully – Many new managers feel they need to take charge and swiftly establish authority to subdue their more experienced staff. Unfortunately, this will usually do nothing more than weaken their case. Let’s face it; people new to management positions are likely to make mistakes. Demonstrating control and listening to employees not only shows respect of more seasoned employees, it also earns their trust in you as an effective leader who is patient and will not make rash decisions. One final point, when you manage people who are older than you, pay attention. You might learn something that will help you down the road.
- Ask Intelligent Questions – As a manager, you’re primary job is to help make good decisions in support of the higher business goals. Making good decisions, though, does not require you to be the expert. Your experienced employees are there to help you make those decisions. Instead of asking “Why don’t we try that?” phrase your question as “I’m not the expert here, but shouldn’t we consider that?” Ask your older employees for input, challenge their ideas, and work with them to come to a prudent course of action. Learning how to properly tap into the wisdom of your older employees will not only make you a better manager but also will strengthen relationships with employees you might see at your parent’s dinner party.
- Show Off Your Own Knowledge – Even for experienced managers who step into new positions with employees older than them, earning the trust can take time. For this reason, don’t be afraid to offer your own expertise or knowledge to a discussion or situation when appropriate. We’ve all experienced working with that guy who’s five years past retirement age who has forgotten more stories than you even know. Still, offer your input and insights on a given topic by sharing an example you lived through earlier in your career. Just as you value your older employee’s experience, don’t be afraid to put your knowledge on display, either. Sharing your knowledge and experience will help establish your authority as a manager with your entire team, and will help show your older employees you’re not just another kid with “the Facebook.”
- Focus on Relationships – It will take time for older employees to see you as a leader or skilled manager, particularly when the age gap is significant. Spend time getting to know them, their interests and dislikes. Forming strong, healthy relationships helps forge trust between you and your employee, which in turn will help you position yourself as a trusted ally. The employees who once saw you as an unqualified kid will have far more confidence in you as their manager when you’ve invested your time in developing a relationship with them, and they see you have their best interest in mind.
Managing an older employee is a rite of passage for virtually all managers. We’ve all been there and made those same mistakes. And, there are other rites of passage coming. The same sorts of things can be said about managing someone who is a friend, managing someone who went to a better school, or managing someone you used to work for. By being patient and willing to invest your time into building relationships and keeping an open and honest dialog, you can earn the trust of your older employees.