Working for a Younger Manager

By BNET Editorial published on BNET.com 10/03/2007

Generation X, born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, has challenged the restraints imposed by their parents. Gen X values bold expressions of individuality, seeking new creative and moral ground, and is less tolerant of traditional values than older generations. The confidence of Gen X threatens the concept of lifelong, “womb to tomb” employment. Seniority privileges have been deemphasized, and competence and added value are becoming the keys to advancement. In their hunger for self-sufficiency and success, younger people have started to encroach on the professional domain of older workers. Now that the subsequent “Generation Y” has entered the workplace, and with technology fields dominated by younger workers, age gaps of 20 years between manager and direct report are not uncommon, moving the issue of working for a younger manager into the limelight.

What You Need to Know
How can I relate to a manager who has a totally different working style?
Disparate influences on individuals lead to different priorities and different styles. Try to disregard how your manager is doing things, and instead focus on what she achieves. If you get caught up in overanalyzing the situation, things will be very stressful for you.

How can I get respect from my very young and confident manager?
While your manager appears to be confident, he may be over-compensating because of your greater experience. Consider providing feedback on his conduct, and request that he respond differently to you. Ask what you can do to assist him, so that he knows you are on his side.

My manager is attempting to do something we have tried in the past that failed. Is it OK to offer advice?
Giving advice to a younger superior in the workplace can sometimes come off as patronizing. It must be done with care. In general, a “reverse coaching” technique may be effective—ask a series of open questions that will help your manager think through the intended action or approach. Encourage your

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manager to speculate on the consequences of her actions and on what the likely impact might be. By thinking the situation through in this manner, she may come to the same conclusion, without feeling patronized. Then brainstorm alternative ways forward. Keep in mind that past failure does not guarantee that the approach or initiative will never succeed. Something may have changed that will enable the initiative to succeed this time.

My young manager is very talented, but is making some really big mistakes. What should I do?
There is a balance between letting someone build experience by learning from their mistakes and allowing them to crash and burn. Think about the consequences of your manager’s actions. If he could endanger his reputation and effectiveness, talk to him privately. Give positive feedback before airing your concerns and make it clear that your intentions are good.

What to Do
Understand the Context
The rise of Generation Y has resulted in a growing age gap between manager and direct report. In addition, the job market has gone through rapid-growth phases and the economy has changed. This has resulted in higher demand for talented people and a growing need for different skill sets. At the same time, older people are enjoying better health and longer lives—and often working longer careers. Thus, older workers are more likely to find themselves competing for jobs with their younger counterparts. Although this trend increases the possibility of conflict, it also offers many opportunities for a rich exchange of knowledge and experience. If managed well, the generation divide and differences in style and experience can be overcome, resulting in productive working partnerships. The following sections suggest ideas to keep conflict at bay when working for a manager who is younger.

Be Receptive to New Ideas and Learning Opportunities
Try to engage with your younger manager using an open mind; develop a mindset that their approach may bring unexpected rewards and success. It is tempting to oppose the ideas and suggestions of a younger person, especially if you feel they are encroaching on territory in which you have had past success. However, be receptive to new or different ways of doing things; explore the ramifications from a positive standpoint rather than a negative one.

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Although your cumulative skills and experience have brought you success, there is always room for more learning. It is a mistake to take the arrival of a younger manager as a signal to entrench. Finding oneself in a new situation is always an opportunity to learn. Indeed, parents often learn from their children and maintain that children keep them young and current. If it helps, view your manager in the same light and be open to his or her perspective on work—but avoid trying to parent him or her! Keep in mind that younger people have grown up with technology and thus, tend to view the world differently than people who came to technology advances later in life. There is much to be learned from this technological literacy and comfort level.

Avoid Making Assumptions
It is very tempting to categorize younger people as brash and inexperienced. Instead, attempt to see things from their perspective. Although they may appear confident, working with people who have more experience can be very daunting for a young person. Try observing your young manager through the eyes of a recruiter; look for and appreciate the unique qualities that have put him or her in a senior position. Young people can be extremely talented. Because age, class, and cultural barriers have largely disappeared, young co-workers often have an engagingly honest and open communication style, enabling a free flow of ideas.

Communicate Proactively, and Utilize Coaching Techniques
Don’t hold back when you need your manager’s attention. Schedule a meeting to discuss issues that are business- or relationship-critical. Avoid provocative ranting. Ensure that communication is two-way so that exchanges are mutually helpful and productive. Coaching is not about directing, telling, or advising. Coaching is about asking open questions, revealing the dynamics of a situation, enabling someone to make sense of what is occurring, and inspiring them to generate ideas. You can do this in a professional setting without wearing the “coaching hat,” so to speak, but simply by using questions to stimulate awareness and thoughtfulness. Being asked to articulate something often enables a person to re-examine their assumptions and decisions in a more objective way. By facilitating this, you leverage your experience while supporting your manager in a constructive way. Be wary of investing too heavily in your manager’s actions, however. There is a time to let go and allow your manager find his or her own way. As long as you have tried to raise awareness of an important situation and have acted in a supportive way, you have fulfilled your role.

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Make Light of Situations
Do not take things too personally. If a young manager misunderstands your sensitivities or appears to undervalue the experience you offer, let it go or make light of it. Let your manager know that you are on his or her side. As a direct report who is more experienced, you are in a very good position to set the tone of the relationship. Ensure that your communication methods reflect an easygoing style. It is amazing how much you can relay in a light, humorous comment. Avoid sarcasm and irony, however, and keep it authentic.

Facilitate Success
Your manager’s success is your success. Try to be supportive and seek opportunities to help your manager be seen as successful. Talking about achievements and accomplishments, especially within your network of co-workers, can serve both you and your manager well. Change can be difficult because it requires letting go of something familiar and replacing it with something that is unfamiliar. To avoid feeling threatened, it is important to take the time to rethink and readjust. Try to look forward and see the benefits brought by change—and anticipate some unexpected advantages.

What to Avoid
You Assume You Know Better
Assuming that you know better than your younger manager because you are older and wiser is a mistake. The value you contribute is not age, nor is it necessarily wisdom; the value you offer is your ability to excel at your job. Try to see your new circumstances as a learning opportunity that could take you into exciting new territory.

You Feel Slighted
If you perceive the situation of working for a younger manager as a slight on you or your performance, problems will result. Harboring these feelings will cause you to act and behave as if you have been slighted. Even if you think you are being subtle, your verbal communication and body language will give away your true feelings. This will inevitably create tension between you and your manager, which will be very counterproductive and potentially harmful to your career.

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You Reject New Ideas
The refusal to consider new ideas from a younger manager is a bad position to adopt. It may be seen as a passive aggressive act that is designed to make him or her fail. You may be more aware of past unsuccessful initiatives and resentful of repeating the process. However, try to adopt a positive view and help your manager to explore his or her new ideas openly and constructively.

You Live in the Past
Reminiscing and telling war stories is not always interesting or helpful. Furthermore, this behavior can be an indication that you are backward-looking and have a sentimental attachment to the way things used to be. Make a conscious effort to look to the future and demonstrate a forward-thinking attitude.

You Assume a Lack of Talent or Experience
More experienced professionals tend to assume that their younger counterparts lack sufficient talent or experience to succeed. However, this is often a mistaken assumption. Different opportunities, challenges, and developmental experiences give rise to different perspectives and strengths. Many young people bring a richness to their work that defies their years. Avoid rushing to judgment about a new, younger manager. Instead, remain open to the possibility that they have an unexpectedly wide range of talents and abilities that, while possibly different from your own, may enrich and improve your role, contribution and/or work environment.

Where to Learn More
Book:
Belding, Shaun. Dealing with the Boss from Hell: A Guide to Life in the Trenches. Kogan Page, 2005.

Web Site:
New York Post @ Work, “What happens when baby boomer workers have to report to Generation ‘Y’ managers” (Hannah Seligson): www.nypost.com

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Copyright © 2007 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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