Managing people is a challenge no matter the size of your team or how well you relate to its members, but perhaps one of the most difficult situations a younger manager may find him or herself in is one in which subordinates are 10 or more years older. As human beings, we naturally tend to prejudge the people around us in order plan our behavior at the individual and group levels and may make assumptions that are not completely on the mark. In order to avoid making some potentially serious professional (and social) faux pas, and generally putting your subordinates off their lunch, ignore the following myths about professional relationships between the age groups and bosses/subordinates in general.
The easiest assumption a younger manager can make about older subordinates is that you just can’t relate to them on a personal level. The idea is that you better understand peers that are near your age since you view the world through a similar cultural lens and have more relatable experiences. But even if you aren’t in the same place as your older team members, that is not an excuse to show a lack of interest in their lives. You can still ask about families, past experiences, goals, and other common interests that most people have in common at any point in life. By forging a personal connection, you will better understand how to motivate and communicate with your employees, which makes you a more respected, effective leader.
One of the biggest mistakes managers can make, regardless of the average age of your team, is to assume that you know more than they know. You need your team’s input when making decisions and you should seek to learn from their experience whenever you can. Older employees are often the most experienced at both what they do and with how the company works. They have probably already experienced most any problem you may come across and know which approaches work and which don’t. Older employees want to be a part of the solution, to share their knowledge with you, and help with the decision-making process. Let them.
Another myth involves two potential extremes: that your older employees need no training at all or that they need more training than anyone. Just because an employee knows more than you about particular issues or has been at a company for one or two decades doesn’t mean that he or she knows everything about everything. But nor is it fair to assume that an older employee lacks the technical skills or knowledge possessed by younger workers and so needs far more training. Your best bet is to get to know each employee individually by observing their workflow, noting their strengths and weaknesses, and making training decisions based on empirical data, not prejudiced assumptions.
Finally, you can’t go in thinking that your older employees will simply write you off as a naïve and incompetent youngster. This assumption can lead to inefficiencies and the breakdown of communication since you may avoid confronting these employees since you don’t think they will be receptive to your advice or feedback. You need to manage all of your employees which means holding them accountable for their actions, ensuring they perform at peak levels, and helping them to succeed. No matter the age gap between you and your reports, if you are an effective leader that effectively coaches, trains, and recognizes each employee, you will gain their respect and loyalty.