The idea of a younger boss managing an older worker is not a new one. Fast-track programs that quickly promote bright, young talent have been around for decades.
That being said, the demise of the job-for-life and strict hierarchical career pathways has made room for more flexible careers. Nowadays, we don’t all climb the corporate ladder at the same rate — or even in the same direction. Some of us even look for ways to shift sideways or downwards to expand our careers. Add to the mix the rapid rate at which mergers and acquisitions take place in the contemporary era, and you have all the ingredients for a disrupted, and even topsy-turvy, management hierarchy, creating a lot more opportunities for younger managers to lead older workers.
According to a 2012 CareerBuilder survey, 34 percent of U.S. workers say their bosses are younger than they are, and 15 percent say that they work for someone who is at at least 10 years younger than they are. Given this situation, I thought it would be useful to give younger managers some tips and insights to help them manage older workers more effectively.
1. Develop a Situational leadership Style
You don’t need to adopt a different leadership style to manage older workers. Research from St. John Fisher College found that there were no considerable differences between leadership styles across generations.
What the study did find was that younger managers — in fact, all managers — should develop a situational leadership styles. This means that managers should adopt different leadership styles depending on the situation at hand. Doing so allows managers to be more effective when it comes to managing diverse groups.
In situational leadership, managers analyze the leadership preferences of their individual direct reports and adapt their styles to suit. Some direct reports might need more space to work, and others may want to be more closely managed, for example. The point is that management style is not really about the age of the report: it’s about their individual preferences for certain management styles.
2. Adapt Your Communication Style
The St. John Fisher study also found that there was a difference in communication styles between generations. Depression-era workers and baby boomers prefer a more face-to-face style of communication, while Generation X-ers seem to prefer quick emails or instant messages. Millennials, for their part, tend to prefer communication via social media.
Given these somewhat disparate communication preferences, younger managers really need to develop inclusive communication styles that reflects the generational diversity of their teams. Millennial bosses can’t assume all of their team members like to communicate via social media.
3. Use Mentoring to Bridge the Generational Divide
It’s easy for generations to develop myths and negative stereotypes about one another, and these myths and stereotypes can cloud the truth and create false divisions within a multi-generational team. One way to bridge this generational gap is to foster an environment of mentoring within teams. Managers should allow a two-way sharing of knowledge between generations. This will help to generate respect and trust between the generational cohorts.
A manager can encourage such mentoring by constantly showcasing and advertising the experience of older workers, asking them to present their expertise at lunch-and-learns and team meetings. This will motivate younger workers to approach more experienced workers for their insights and knowledge.
At the same time, managers should also encourage reverse mentoring by showcasing the unique skills and traits of younger workers. Throw in some cross-generational team-building events, and a manager has all the ingredients for creating a rich, two-way mentoring climate. Such a climate should reduce intergenerational tension and bridge the age divides within any team.