As a result, employees aren’t being ushered out the door with a pat on the back and a gold watch anymore. Now that some companies have as many as five generations coexisting in their workplaces, chances are high you may one day report to a boss who is significantly younger than you.
This scenario makes some older workers feel uncomfortable. That’s all the more reason why we should all be asking ourselves how we’d feel working for a younger person. It may happen to you, and it’s best to be prepared.
Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting, knows all about working for a younger boss. Not only has he been in the talent management space for more than 30 years, but he has also been a career coach for more than 30 years. Over the course of his career, Ruyle has been in both roles – the much younger boss of an older worker and an older worker being managed by a younger boss.
Ruyle was kind enough to share his insights on how older workers can not only manage the situation, but make it a worthwhile experience for everyone involved.
Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room
Ruyle believes addressing the situation right out of the gate is important. Ultimately, the boss is responsible for establishing a smooth working relationship, but your gesture will likely be appreciated regardless of who initiates the conversation.
“A very young boss may be insecure and lack emotional intelligence,” Ruyle says. “You can use your experience and maturity to set the relationship off on the right foot.”
Years ago, Ruyle was offered a role as the director of talent management at a global company. The position would have placed Ruyle above an older gentleman who had been running the team for more than 20 years. Ruyle feared that given their age difference, the situation could be awkward.
Before he accepted the role, Ruyle invited the man out for lunch and spoke to him candidly about the arrangement, acknowledging that it could be uncomfortable for them both. This opened up an honest discussion and set the tone for their future working relationship.
“Both of us showing our vulnerability was important,” Ruyle says. “People want to come across as capable and confident at work, but admitting you have insecurities or fears and talking through them goes a long way toward building trust.”
This simple lunch meeting between Ruyle and his coworker set in motion a strong working relationship that lasted until the older man retired several years later.
Let Go of Stereotypes
We’ve all read about the entitlement of millennials and the cynicism of Gen. X, but you shouldn’t believe the hype. You want to be recognized for your strengths and talents as an individual. You don’t want your boss to make assumptions about your abilities based on your age. Offer your new boss the same respect. Judge them according to their personality and ability, not their generational stereotype.
If you lost out on a promotion or your younger boss was hired above you, you might have some lingering resentments. These can threaten your relationship with your younger boss if you don’t deal with them.
“If you are harboring resentment toward a younger boss, or if you are set on finding fault with them, you’ll never have a very constructive relationship,” Ruyle says.
In his coaching work, Ruyle encourages clients to think of their relationships with their bosses as plays they are directing. The important question becomes: How do they want their plays to go?
“Many people live their lives in a constant state of reaction – just reacting to the things that are happening around them,” Ruyle says. “If you can shift your mindset and decide to take the role of the director – rather than just an actor – in the play, the relationship is more likely to be productive.”
Ruyle tells his clients to ask themselves: “If this were a play, how would I advise my actor to treat their boss?”
Learning does not only flow downhill. Older workers should embrace the opportunity to learn from their younger bosses.
“Workers of all ages have strengths you can learn from,” Ruyle says. “Identify your younger boss’s strength. Perhaps they understand social media better than you do, or maybe they deliver strong presentations. Focus on what they can teach you. You’ll be a better employee for it.”
In turn, older workers will be able to teach their younger bosses skills such as communication and other soft skills that younger professionals may be lacking.
“Serving in a mentorship role can be very rewarding, but you have to be sincere in wanting to offer your help and knowledge,” Ruyle says. “If you are sincere, you will be a trusted advisor, which is a great position to be in.”
Develop Your Empathy
Empathy is another important skill for managers and employees at all levels to develop, Ruyle says.
“Empathy means to listen while withholding judgement to understand another person’s point of view,” Ruyle says. “As an older person, I have my own lens through which I see the world. A much younger person is going to have a completely different lens through which they see the world, and their team, and their business. Older workers need to ask questions of their younger bosses, and then really listen. If you can understand where this younger person is coming from, it can help you have a much more productive relationship.”
Ultimately, Ruyle’s main piece of advice is to treat your boss with respect.
“As an employee, your job is to make your boss look good,” Ruyle says. “Regardless of the age of your boss, you should be there to support them and learn what you can from them.”
LiveCareer develops tools to help job seekers draft cover letters, prepare for interviews, and build targeted resumes via its resume builder and an extensive collection of resume templates.