Work Relationships

How to manage someone older than you

Written by Eric Titner

Most of us are used to a certain dynamic at work—those above us in the pecking order have typically been in the workforce longer and are older, and those below us are relatively newer to the world of work and are likely younger. However, this dynamic has effectively been thrown overboard in a wide array of industries. Today, we’re seeing younger and younger individuals in positions of power and influence in the workforce, and these days it’s not uncommon for the power hierarchy to be reversed, with older individuals reporting to younger bosses.

According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Younger bosses—already prevalent in industries like IT, professional services, and accounting—will likely become more so as ‘companies promote young Millennials into leadership positions and organizations make more of an effort to retain top talent,’ says Jeanne C. Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace, the human resources consultancy, and coauthor of The 2020 Workplace. ‘It’s a potentially uncomfortable, potentially conflict-ridden situation,’ she says, ‘but it doesn’t have to be.’”

The truth is, managing someone older than you—or vice versa—can be a challenge, but so is any power dynamic between two individuals with distinct personalities and backgrounds. Sometimes this “reverse dynamic” works well, and older individuals take advantage of the opportunity to acquire a fresh and modern knowhow and skill set from their younger supervisors, while other times there’s a bit more friction. While there are no hard and fast rules that are guaranteed to work in every situation, there are some things that can be done to help ease this possibly delicate situation.

If you’ve found yourself in the position of managing someone who’s older than you, use the following strategies to maximize the chances that this working dynamic will be a smooth and efficient relationship.

Lose the ego.

Okay, you may be the young hotshot at your office, but if you have an older employee reporting to you it won’t do you any favors to keep reminding them of this. They already know you’re younger and in a position of power, so mentioning this over and over again will only make things worse. Try being a bit more humble—it often works well on younger and older employees alike.

Be ready to listen.

People appreciate it when they feel that their voices are being heard, and they have respect for those who are willing to hear their point of view. Listening puts others at ease and empowers and motivates them to do their best work. Isn’t that what you want from someone who reports to you?

Motivate respectfully.

Skip the platitudes and demeaning clichés; chances are, they’ve heard them all before. Also, having them come from someone younger could really backfire. Be respectful when trying to motivate an older employee and you’ll increase the chances of getting positive results.

Be open to learning.

Just as you’d like to be respected in the workplace, older employees would like to be respected for the wealth of experience and skills that they bring to the table. The most effective supervisor-subordinate relationships are those that demonstrate mutual respect and a willingness from both sides to learn and benefit from each other. If you’re managing someone older than you, be open to the learning experience going both ways.

Demonstrate value.

In any good supervisor-subordinate relationship, the supervisor makes it clear that they have valuable knowledge and skills to pass along. Older employees can typically benefit from learning modern technology and skill sets for example, and if you’re the type of supervisor who’s willing to demonstrate this sort of value, you’re more than likely to earn the respect and dedication of an older employee.

The world of work is changing rapidly in many exciting ways, and all the old career rules are rapidly flying out the window. In order to keep up, new rules need to be written, including how to handle the “younger boss/older employee” dynamic. If you find yourself in this position, fear not—use the strategies mentioned here and you’ll be setting yourself up for lasting success.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.