How to manage workers who are older than you

April 12, 2015

I love getting questions from members of the Change Your Team community.  Today’s question comes from Jonathan who asked “How do I manage more mature members of my team?” Great question Jonathan!

Let’s start by defining our terms.  I’m assuming that when you say “mature,” you mean “old,” or at least significantly older than you. Let’s drop the politically correct stuff because if all the older workers on your team were behaving maturely, you probably wouldn’t have sent in the question. I’ll assume we’re talking about older, long-tenured workers who are struggling to accept the leadership of someone much younger than themselves.

Rule #1: Be Empathetic

Now, before you judge their behavior, stop and empathize with how the older employees on your team might be experiencing your leadership.

Counter-cultural: First, you probably have significantly less experience in your organization than they do.  So maybe your newfangled ways are contrary to the culture or accepted norms.  (This is especially challenging if you’ve been brought in specifically as a change agent with the express purpose of changing the culture and norms.)

Naïve: Maybe you’re suggesting ideas that have been tried (and failed) before or something that is totally new and bleeding edge.  Either way, your team members might be dreading the effort and investment they will make in a plan they lack confidence in.

Informal: Maybe you make cultural references to things that they can’t relate to. Maybe your violations of bygone dress codes are contrary to their standards of professionalism. God help you if you have body art.

Or maybe you’re the best boss in the world and your youth just makes them all the more aware of their age and the fact that they have been lapped on the career track.

Make a significant effort to understand how your older team members perceive you, and what your leadership is causing them to confront about themselves. Stephen Covey got it right here: seek to understand them before striving to be understood.

Rule #2: Be Objective

It’s really important that you shed your own baggage and stereotypes about older workers.  As long as you hold on to those, older workers will feel your judgment burning a hole right through them.

Do you naturally assume that older workers are less tech savvy?  My mom’s 81 now, but at 65, she took a high school course on digital publishing so she could make her charity the first in the community to have a website (she got 95% in the class).  I left the hapless technophobe stereotype behind long ago.

Do you assume that older workers are less motivated? That they aren’t willing to work as hard? I wave goodbye to my older colleagues at 5:30 because I want to be home for my kids.  They are using the freedom of an empty nest to invest more time in their careers.

Take a minute to list all the generalizations and caricatures of older workers you’ve developed over the years.  Now go through each one and think of everyone on your team.  You’ll see that people of all ages have strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered in the context of what they bring to the table.

Rule #3: Value Them

I don’t care what age you are, everyone wants to be valued.  If the way you are managing the older members of your team is overtly or subliminally signaling that you don’t value them, you will see the symptoms of hurt feelings: resistance, disengagement, anger, insubordination, etc.

Start by engaging them in a conversation. “How have you seen the company evolve during your time here?” “You know the culture well, what do you think will be the secret of success in this transformation?” “What worries you most about the new approach?” Then listen carefully to what you learn.

The point is not to make change and evolution optional, it’s not.  Instead, the point is to understand any potential resistance you might be facing and to tap into any source of strength and support that you can get.

“Given what you’ve just told me, and what you know of the team, what advice would you give me to make this work?”

“What do you see as the strengths you bring to this new era?”

“What role can you play in supporting this change?”

All of these comments give the people who might feel like part of the problem a chance to be part of the solution.  For most people, that’s all they need.

Rule #4: Draw the Line

For a small number of older workers, they really aren’t interested in expending the kind of effort required to make significant change.  That’s an ok conclusion for them to come to.  Then your role is to help them move to the next stage.  Because severance packages are costly for long tenured workers, many managers assume they are stuck with the disengaged employee and just shift the burden to others who are more engaged.  (Don’t get me started on that one!)

I encourage you to have pretty candid conversations with the person who is no longer living up to your expectations.  Is there an alternate work arrangement that they could get excited about?  Can you set a date for retirement and create a really positive ending to their career?

And if the older worker on your team is doing a great job and the only thing that drives you nuts is that they call you “kiddo,” just tell them. Either that, or agree that you can call them “Gramps.”

Now, I want you to notice something. All of the things I just suggested could be used to create a stronger connection to just about anyone on your team.  Empathize. Be objective. Value people. Draw the Line.  So if you don’t have issues with older workers, try applying this to younger workers, finance wonks, purple people…

Thanks again Jonathan for the great question.  If you have a question, use the contact box to send it in.

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