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The First-Time Manager: Directing Employees Older Than You

With nearly 30% of managers being millennials, managing across generations matters more than ever. Last in a series.

When Aditi became a first-time manager at a large insurance firm last year, she was one part excited, two parts terrified. Her biggest fear wasn’t the work itself but inheriting a team that included several people older than her parents. Though she hated to admit it, she feared that these older employees wouldn’t be able to keep up with the many technologies she wanted to implement. She also worried that, as a 26-year-old, they’d never respect her as their boss.

As millennials like Aditi increasingly move into leadership positions, they’re facing the challenge of leading the most age-diverse workforce that has ever existed. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States’ workforce in 2017 was comprised of 2% Silent Generation (born 1945 or earlier); 25% Baby Boomer (1946 to 1964); 33% Generation X (1965 to 1980); 35% Millennial (1981 to 1996); and 5% Generation Z (1997 and later). In fact, the share of more experienced employees in the workforce is only expected to continue to increase as more people delay retirement due to financial reasons or personal choice.

Contrary to stereotypes about older workers continuing to work just to keep their benefits, workers age 55 and up are among the most engaged members of the workforce.

As younger managers take the reins in a fast-paced, tech-driven business environment, it’s important that they make sure they’re bringing everyone along on the journey. Here’s how to not leave members of your team behind.

Exercise patience and empathy, especially with technology.

At a time when many firms see technology as the number one driver of their competitive advantage, it’s common for older professionals to feel devalued in this arena. “I suspect many people who are Gen X or older are struggling with feelings of getting old and fear becoming inadequate,” says Gabrielle Bill, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Indeed, recent findings from the Pew Research Center show that only 41% of people age 50 to 64 feel “very confident” using smartphones and other electronic devices compared to 74% of people age 18 to 29.

If you’re implementing new processes and technology, make sure you exercise patience and empathy with the whole team. If there’s resistance to a new initiative, find out why—is it because someone is uncomfortable switching to a new way or sees a fundamental problem with the new process? “Based on what you know about their resistance, you can support them in the right way,” Bill says. “Maybe it means getting them additional training or creating a step-down plan for them so they can do it more slowly.” Sometimes, just being able to provide written instructions can make all the difference. “It’s such a small thing but it always helps me,” says Steven, a 62-year-old customer service rep with a large retailer.

Don’t assume you know what motivates them.

To earn the respect of your team, particularly older workers who may fear being marginalized, it’s important to build individual relationships with each person. “The success of everyone on your team is individualized, so find out about what the motivations, strengths and aspirations of your older team members are, just like you would anyone else,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Contrary to stereotypes about older workers continuing to work just to keep their benefits, workers age 55 and up are among the most engaged members of the workforce, according to an AARP study—65% are engaged, compared to 58% of younger employees.

If you find, for example, that one of your more senior employees thrived as a top manager for most of her career but moved into her current role as an office assistant a few years ago to gain some work-life balance, there’s an opportunity for that person to mentor a younger person at the company, or even give you someone to bounce ideas off of, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the working relationship you have with others.

Lead with vulnerability.

Young first-time managers often feel they always need to have the answers. But to more seasoned team members, this kind of mentality can come across as arrogant and shortsighted. Instead, experts say it’s better to lead with confident vulnerability. It’s OK to be open about the areas where you aren’t so experienced, especially to someone who has more experience than you. “You don’t have to have all the answers,” Bill says. “Being vulnerable and asking for other people’s expertise, can actually do more to show that you have the skills to be a great manager.”

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