Managing a team of professionals in the workplace can be challenging at the best of times, but it’s particularly difficult when there’s a dramatic, or even a modest age difference in play. If you’re younger than the team you’ve been hired to manage, you may find your reputation, and your very identity, is under constant scrutiny — and even intense doubt.
Below are three things to keep in mind if the above situation applies to you. These fundamentals can help you and your team remain focused on your work and what you have in common, rather than on superficial differences.
How to Manage Employees That Are Older Than You
Don’t Make Sudden Changes
When you get a leadership position, a major temptation can be to try and implement those changes that you’ve been thinking about for months. You may think that this will prove to everybody that you’re in charge, and have great ideas.
You may want to reconsider. If your employees have been there for a long time, they’re used to doing things a particular way. If you start off the bat with major changes, you could be seen as a threat. Slowly ease into your new ideas once you’ve gotten a chance to build some trust, and you’ll have a much better time.
Be Ready For Questions and Jokes About Your Age
Let’s face it, no one wants to be told to do by someone that looks younger than them. You likely have had an experience at any job where someone doubts your talents because of your age. While doing work for the Mustang parts company CJ Pony Parts, I had many people doubt my knowledge of cars. I had even more doubters as one of my first jobs as a wine server at the young age of 22, and had to deal with the comments of “this wine is older than you” far too often.
I could brush those customer comments off easily, but what if they were from employees? Human nature seems to dictate that we possess at least a small measure of perceived superiority over those who are younger than us. So if you find yourself surrounded and outnumbered by your elders, it pays to have a few effective replies ready in the holster for when the question finally gets asked: “How old are you?” Or, alternatively, “Are you old enough to do this job?”
It can be terribly easy to get blindsided by these types of questions, and the best course of action is usually good-humor instead of defensiveness. Just make sure your humor doesn’t come across as sarcasm.
No matter what, you’ll want to tackle this issue head-on whenever it finally comes up. Don’t let your age drive a wedge between you and your team. Feel free to share your age proactively, even on day one if you’re comfortable enough. Otherwise, be prepared to answer honestly if it comes up later on.
Don’t Assume Anything
Treat your older employees the same way you would treat younger ones.
I made a mistake with this that I still makes me cringe. I was telling an older employee that he could send me a large file using Dropbox. This was before Dropbox was as common as it is now, and I launched into a speech about what it was and how great all this new technology was. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Did you think I’m too old to know what Dropbox is?” I stuttered out an excuse but it was clear that he knew I really did assume he wouldn’t know about it.
Since then I’ve learned it’s best to just ask. Saying “Have you tried Dropbox?” would have been much better than assuming, he hadn’t. I’m also asking it innocently enough where he would feel comfortable saying “no” and then learning how to use it.
When In Doubt, Show Respect
The bottom line in all of these points is to keep respect at the forefront of your dealings with your new team. Indeed, probably most of the developed world would be in a vastly better state than it is now if respect ruled our lives instead of suspicion. So keep this in mind as you take charge in the workplace — you’ll be surprised by how far a little respect can take you.
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