← IC Matters · Engagement

Why managing older employees makes younger people nervous

Michael ComynMichael Comyn·

I heard a radio commercial this morning, and it jarred. It featured an actor playing a kindly, gentle “older” person offering wise words on double glazed windows.

Why I noticed it was the stereotype provided by the scriptwriter of a kindly old man in soft slippers speaking with a slow drawl was most likely the perception of a much younger person of what it is like to be older.

The truth may be, that if this was the portrayal of a seventy-something-year-old, then this character most likely rocked the 1960’s in a carefree way that today’s millennial couldn’t even contemplate and that’s without the sex, drugs or rock and roll.

This observation follows a recent session where I coached 24 young graduate managers in a global company, as part of their leadership development.

During these sessions, a common theme arose, and I will admit, I later went looking for more insight from this group, that they were nervous of managing people older than themselves.

So what is the next generation of young managers afraid of from older generations?

My thesis is, that older employees are “spoof proof”, and therefore have the confidence to challenge and question the leadership or lack of it often found in younger managers.

Instead of being seen as a source of wisdom and guidance older employees and team members often have sufficient self-confidence to answer back, if not always verbally, very often at least with a raised eyebrow.

It seems employees and managers engage in the idea of knowing one’s place and having that place acknowledged.

So what are the implications for organizations when generations meet and meet they will as most of us face longer working lives, and the concept of retirement becomes a luxury for many?

It is easy to overgeneralize and craft self-serving stories with generational models. We love to imagine how different we are from our parents, and how different today’s children are from us.

There is a lot said about millennials and “generation snowflake” and here is not the place to rehash these arguments.

Motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek “broke the internet” with a discussion on this particular group and how they don’t have it easy.

Their problems, he suggests are caused by poor parenting and overuse of and dependency on technology. It’s also worth acknowledging that these same “snowflakes” face social conditions that are inequitable, they lack affordable and relevant accommodation and face into jobs with zero hours contracts that often fail to pay a living wage.

The older generation is also facing uncertainty with longer life expectancy and increased medical costs. They have also become unsettled as their expectations of jobs for life and companies that are loyal to them fail to deliver.

Our younger leaders and managers need to park the stereotypes, avoid “spoofing” when they communicate and start to focus on team members not on their age but their skill set.

Older employees need to stop trading on their years of experience, 30 times the same years’ experience does not equate to 30 different years of different experiences, and yes they too have to drop the stereotyping of younger generations.

A little less arrogance and sexism from older male colleagues would go a long way to making younger managers, especially female ones,  feel more included.

This arrogance is, for the most part, unintentional, sometimes verging on “mansplaining”. The intention of the older male may be, in his eyes to nurture the junior leader – that’s not always how it is perceived. It’s better to judge the young leader on their ability to deliver rather than on one’s own need to appear nurturing and risk being misunderstood.

My experience as a coach is that as organizational designers try to flatten the layers of hierarchy, employees, both young and old re-instate them if only in their minds.  

Harold J. Leavitt writing in the Harvard Business Review (March 2003) suggested that hierarchies “fulfil our deep need for order and security”. Hierarchies show us how fast we are climbing the ladder of success; “they give us an identity”, and any ripple in that continuum unsettles us.

Organizations seduce us with psychological rewards like feelings of power and status and then express wonder when people are nostalgic for having their status acknowledged.

I’m suggesting that this generational challenge can be overcome by crafting communications skills for both sides. There’s a business opportunity here for corporate trainers and coaches and leaders.

A fundamental of good communication is the removal of assumption, and it’s replacement by fact-checking.  Engage people with emotional intelligence skills development; including reality testing and increased self-awareness and for younger leaders develop their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Pull people away from technologies that dull interpersonal skills and encourage listening and observation skills on both sides of the generational divide.

Develop confidence and self-esteem on both sides, so challenges to ideas are not seen as attacks on the person but instead an expression of a problem with their concept.

Advertising copywriters may have to stretch the tropes they use, but they’re generally smart people who know what to use to get our attention – they certainly got mine!


More related stories

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Continue to use the website as normal if you agree to the use of cookies.
If you’d like to find out more about the cookies we use, please read Poppulo's Cookie Policy.