By: Malcolm Fleschner
In today’s information-driven workplace, where age and experience often take a backseat to speed and innovation, companies with multigenerational workforces increasingly look to younger talent for their management skills.
Yet youthful managers often encounter resistance from seasoned team members who don’t always appreciate seeing younger colleagues promoted into leadership positions.
Lynne Lancaster, author of The M-factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace, calls this reshuffling of corporate priorities an “inversion of the knowledge pyramid,” one that requires a delicate corporate balance among multigenerational employees.
“Given the rate that new information is being created,” she says, “someone right out of school may know more in some areas than people who have been with a company for a while.” The challenge, says Lancaster, is to gather, mine and utilize all that new information “without disrespecting the wisdom that’s already there.”
Why Perceptions Matter
In such an atmosphere, Lancaster says, inter-generational confusion and conflict are all but inevitable. Younger managers who come into supervisory positions eager to make an immediate impact may wind up coming across as arrogant and disrespectful, she says.
For instance, “A younger boss might say, ‘We’re going to toss out this software we’ve been using because it’s inefficient and there are newer, better ones available,'” she explains.
“Then some on the team might react by saying, ‘What do you mean, “toss out?” Do you have any idea how much time and money we spent developing that software, or how much that’s going to cost us?’ That’s just one way that resentment can build up quickly.”
Know Your Management 101
Generational management expert and Rainmaker Thinking CEO Bruce Tulgan agrees that younger managers supervising older team members must ride a fine line between humility and authority.
But he says that the best way for those managers to head off potential conflicts is by starting out in what he calls “intensive learning mode.” This means adopting best practices that apply to new managers of all ages, including:
- Understanding the expectations that have been set by upper-level management.
- Researching the personality, strengths, weaknesses and work history of each team member.
- Conducting an introductory team meeting where you state your intentions, explain that you’re eager to learn, and invite team members to ask you questions.
- Meet one-on-one with each team member to find out what they do and how you can help.
Tulgan acknowledges that following these steps will not guarantee that young managers will avoid conflicts. But by establishing a pattern of professional conduct and setting priorities early on, young managers can demonstrate the kind of maturity and leadership that’s likely to win over team members of all age brackets.
Why Experience Matters
University of Pennsylvania professor and author of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order Peter Cappelli says that with new workforce management, younger managers tend to make a variety of mistakes with older workers, whether by micromanaging, under-managing or improperly asserting authority.
Since experienced employees tend to know what they’re doing, Cappelli says, newly-minted managers should tap into that experience by actively engaging with older team members.
“The model I like to use is the relationship between lieutenants and sergeants in the army,” says Cappelli. “Lieutenants are typically the youngest officers, and they are assigned to ‘manage’ older and more experienced sergeants.”
In this scenario, it’s more like a partnership — the lieutenants are in charge of final decisions and manage the relationships with authorities above. But they consult with sergeants on almost everything before making decisions. The result means that managers help retain top employees.
Passing the Authority Test
Despite all their efforts, younger managers may still face challenges to their credentials or authority from older employees.
The key, Tulgan says, is to presume that your critics are sincere. Treat them with respect and show that you believe their concerns are serious.
“Take them at their word, that they’re not challenging you just to be difficult, but that they’re raising a real business concern,” he says. “As a manager, it’s certainly appropriate for you to turn that business concern back at them and say, ‘Thanks for bringing that to my attention. You’re going to be part of the solution.’ If, every time someone gives you a hard time, you give them an assignment in return, they’re going to learn to stop giving you a hard time.”