On the Clock

Age-Old Lessons from the Super Bowl

Sunday’s game features the same generation gaps that are common in the workplace now. Here’s how to navigate them.

If you happen to be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday, you’ll probably notice some stark differences.

On one side, you’ll see a veteran coach and a quarterback with decades of experience: 66-year-old New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and 41-year-old Tom Brady, with five Super Bowl wins on their resumes. On the other side is Sean McVay, the 33-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams—the youngest NFL coach in history when he was hired—alongside 24-year-old quarterback Jared Goff trying to capture their first Super Bowl title. 

One survey found 38% of respondents have bosses who are younger than them, up from 34% two years earlier. 

With millennials comprising the largest generation in the workplace today, more companies are finding themselves in similar age-gap situations: young leaders who are in charge of (and up against) professionals as much as twice their age. One survey from CareerBuilder found 38% of respondents said they had a younger boss, up from 34% two years earlier.  

And while we know age is just a number and shouldn’t be a barometer of work quality, many people bristle at the idea of being managed by someone younger—or being put in the position of managing people with decades more experience than themselves. An academic study from Germany found companies with more younger managers of older professionals had workers reporting 12% more negative emotions on the job—which ultimately hurt the company’s performance.

Below, a primer on how to handle (or be) a leader who’s young, regardless of which side of the field you’re on.

Recognize generational differences.

One of the most common refrains career pros hear about younger bosses is their lack of awareness—or care—for “the way things work.” Put it another way, people feel disrespected and fearful that a new boss (and one who’s of a different generation) won’t recognize the hard work an organization or department has done up to this point.

One of the best ways to squash this issue is to understand that someone who is 30 isn’t going to see things in the same light as someone who is 60, because they grew up with different workplace backdrops. Millennials, for example, came of age during the global financial crises and scores of layoffs, which has left lasting impressions of the workplace for them. “You just need to have a respectful, situational understanding of someone else’s point of view,” says John Petzold, who became the youngest senior client partner in Korn Ferry history.

Reframe the opportunity.

The study from Germany brought to light a phenomenon called “status incongruence.” Florian Kunze, the co-author of the study, told the Washington Post that “status incongruence” is when a situation (a younger boss with older direct reports) contradicts a cultural norm (you work your way up the career ladder).

Instead of seeing the situation as a contradiction, career experts recommend viewing it as an opportunity to collaborate and learn from different perspectives. At IBM, for example, a peer-to-peer mentoring program launch in 2016 called CoachMe has given “experienced IBMers” the chance to learn new skills from their junior colleagues.

Be in tune with situational awareness.

Chances are, you probably remember a time when a boss or colleague mentioned a TV show or song that you weren’t familiar with—either because it was before your time, or because it’s all the rage now and you still prefer your reruns of a popular 1970s show. While such cultural references are meant to be a connector, they can disrupt the flow of conversations because they bring age differences to the surface. 

While you can make a joke (“Oh, that was before your time”), career pros say you also can try to explain why you made the reference. Usually it’s because you wanted to get a certain point across by providing an example of it.

Stay vigilant about horizontal violence.

Horizontal violence occurs when we take frustrations out on our colleagues that we’d like to, but often can’t, take out on our bosses or managers. With emotions running higher in situations with a younger boss, it’s good to stay on the lookout for horizontal violence. Regardless of whether you’re on the receiving end of it or dishing it out, using emotional intelligence can help you and your colleagues work through the frustrations.

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