I was promoted as editor at the age of 27. In my team, at least half of my colleagues were at least five years older than me.
The first few months were difficult trying to navigate my older colleagues. I needed to earn their respect, especially when I was hired to take over their previous boss who was in her 40s.
Maybe it was my imagination but I swore every time I talked to my older colleagues, they were thinking, “What is this young punk about?”
It’s an awkward position to be in, what with my older colleagues being in the team far longer than I have. I was excited and eagerly enthusiastic to get my older colleagues on board with my ideas so I talked and talked, went overboard with sharing ideas, did my best to engage everyone – before long, I was tired and my older colleagues still did things their own ways.
I decided to change tactics by showing them I was boss. I pointed out their mistakes, made them rewrite articles (so that they knew I was on to them, older or not) and gave them criticism that weren’t exactly constructive.
That backfired as one by one, they decided to quit the team.
So what did I do wrong in terms of being a manager to my older colleagues?
According to Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix, How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, one should never automatically assume that employees won’t like having a younger boss. “When there is a challenging dynamic, it’s often because this person has never been in that situation before,” she says (yups, that me – first time boss!)
It’s like trying to tell your parents to do something when you’re the one who’s always been told what to do. And for the older colleagues, it’s having a child (in their mind) show you how to do things when you’ve been doing it for years without anyone else complaining!
Hence resentment on both parties... as well as confusion for my experience. All of which is a recipe for disaster.
It’s highly likely that one day, you will find yourself in the same position where you will be overseeing others who are 10 or even 20 years older. And you want to be prepared to take on the role positively. How? Here are some ways to get started.
#1 Believe in yourself
You are being promoted as a manager for a reason – because you’ve proven you can do the job. Being an effective leader doesn’t have an age requirement. However, the minute you start letting your age become an issue, you’ll start doubting yourself and soon, your other colleagues will do the same whether they are older or not.
Just remind yourself that you have what it takes to do the job well. Be decisive so that your older colleagues trust you know how to get the job done.
#2 Be humble
OK, so you’re the “young punk” who got promoted. You don’t have to act that way. Don’t let your success come across as arrogance and let it be how you validate why you ended up in your position. Aim to be humble and graceful, letting your skills speak for themselves instead. You don’t have to keep reminding your older colleagues you are their manager for a reason; if you do your work right and the results show for it; well that’s your credibility right there.
You may have a direct, no-nonsense way about you. But your older teammates may have a more casual approach where they like to start with small talk first. Take your first few weeks to really get to know your older colleagues so you can adapt your communication style to meet theirs. Also, while you may think nothing of calling or sending a WhatsApp to your older colleagues at 11pm, they may see it as an invasion of their personal time with their family.
#4 But don’t let them push you around
It’s easy for an older colleague to take advantage of you, especially if you’re the newer team member who is eager to get everyone’s vote. Whether they do it intentionally or not, take note you’re there to lead, not be led. And sometimes, that requires you showing who’s boss – in a gentle approach, of course!
#5 Get everyone involved
First off, get all your teammates – whatever age group they are in – together when making decisions. You could get a different viewpoint from the older ones so leverage from their experience. Ultimately, you’re the one making the end decision but being inclusive will make a big difference when navigating this sensitive relationship with older colleagues.
Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash