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Project Social: Young Manager, Older Workers

According to a recent survey, 25% of supervisors are younger than the people they supervise.  That’s not really surprising given that not everyone over, say, 40 is a supervisor and someone has to be managing all these people.

It’s also not surprising that we see a large volume of blog traffic on the topic of young managers, managing older workers and dealing with generation gaps in the workforce.

My take is that the problem – if we want to call it that – between younger and older workers has less to do with age per se and more to do with a clash of style and experience level.

I was a young manager once.  I called lots of meetings and did most of the talking.  I worked crazy hours and had limited respect for people who didn’t.  I had all sorts of great theories that didn’t work very well in practice.  There may have been spreadsheets… 

Basically, I was pretty annoying to folks who’d been around a while.

If you’re a young manager there’s a good chance you’re annoying.  But it’s not because you’re ‘young.’

It’s because you haven’t been around the block yet.  You haven’t lived through the ebbs and flows of business.  You don’t know yet which problems are really problems and which will go away by themselves.  You can’t evaluate which 80% really needs to get done and which 20% doesn’t matter. 

Basically – and please don’t take this the wrong way – you’re clueless.

That’s OK.  All great leaders have to start somewhere and plenty of more experienced managers are annoying with far less justification.  If you’re a decent person who tries to be a good boss, most of your team will forgive and support you.  If you’re a micromanaging know it all, they will hate you.

And yes, the older, more experienced people will hate you more because they know what they’re doing and just want to get on with it.

I’m not saying you should let older workers have it all their own way.  If someone on your team undermines your authority or does poor work it’s your job to address it, for example like Dave Ryan’s son did (read all about it over at HR Official.)

But here’s some free advice for managing people with more experience than you:

  • Don’t micromanage – They know what they’re doing and micromanagement kills creativity, enthusiasm and pride in one’s work.
  • Be humble – Some of the people on your team have been working since before you were born and might know a thing or two you don’t.
  • Lighten up – You’ll laugh at yourself in 10 years when you look back on your first manager gig.

Remember: You may be barely old enough to drink now but some day you’ll probably end up working for someone younger than you, too.  There is such a thing as karma…


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