Older man and younger man looking at a laptop screen

Millennials Managing Boomers: 10 Ways To Bridge The Age/Experience Gap

October 2016


You know that awkward moment when you are telling someone how to improve in a job they’ve held longer than you’ve been in the workforce? Today a lot of newly appointed managers are finding themselves managing direct reports that are 10 or more years their senior. Many find this situation difficult for both the managers and those being managed. What can young managers do to surmount this hurdle?

Looking through our datasets, we identified 1,217 cases where a younger leader was managing a direct report that was 10 or more years older. We separated them into two groups: 1) those whose direct reports had rated them as below average on their overall leadership effectiveness and 2) those who’d been rated above average. The graph below clearly demonstrates the big disparity between young managers rated as below average or highly effective. In spite of the relatively small sample, however, we were highly intrigued to learn what the effective leaders were doing to create this huge difference.

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 9.25.12 PM

We looked at the effectiveness ratings based on 49 leadership behaviors and identified those that produce the most significant difference—in other words, the behaviors that seem to make the biggest difference in causing older direct reports to feel their younger mangers are doing an excellent job. As an outline, we compiled them into 10 dimensions that can make the job of managing older employees much easier.

1. Be a guide. Because older employees have typically been in the organization longer than younger managers, the younger managers don’t feel that the older direct reports need a lot of direction and guidance. This can be a big mistake. Organizations are changing quickly and managers are most often the first to hear about new elements in the strategy or mission. When older direct reports don’t have these conversations about strategy and direction, they might construe this an indication they’re no longer important. Discussing this with direct reports ensures that they are kept in the loop and not being ignored. Avoiding these discussions can result in frustration.

2. Cooperate and collaborate. Sometimes new leaders want to demonstrate their effectiveness by working independently from others. They feel that this will help others recognize their skill and talent. But this can be a another huge mistake. Organizations exist to generate synergies between people and groups. Young leaders who make an effort to cooperate with others in the team and to collaborate with others teams are much more successful.

3. Leverage your knowledge and expertise. Often younger managers come to the job with expertise, knowledge and skills that will enhance the deep experience of older direct reports. By working with others, younger managers can gain the trust of older direct reports. Older direct reports may have valuable experience that can be integrated with a younger manager’s knowledge to create more value for the organization. Disparaging others experience and attempting to always be the smartest person in the room never works out well for younger managers.

4. Give honest feedback. Feedback can be a very difficult situation for younger managers. Their temptation is to avoid giving feedback, but sooner or later that only creates much bigger problems. A big part of being successful at giving honest feedback is to spend more time listening than talking. Young leaders who do this, and who are honest and straightforward in their feedback are viewed very positively.

5. Set high standards and stretch goals. Younger managers are often tempted to not push their team too hard or insist on high standards. This is a mistake. The most highly-rated young leaders did the opposite. They set high standards and asked direct reports to accomplish stretch goals. People in general tend to resist working too hard but with the right motivation to encourage them we have found that when people accomplish difficult tasks and hit high standards, they feel more positive about themselves.

6. Quickly recognize where change is needed. Rather than go with the flow, younger leaders who are perceived as more effective recognize opportunities to change. Change is difficult, but by identifying and improving inefficiency or resolving potential problems, young leaders can be viewed more positively.

7. Be inspiring. Most people are skilled at giving orders, checking up, setting quotas and insisting that people deliver. Most managers already know how to drive for results and push others to deliver. The best performing young leaders also know how to inspire and pull. They were able to inspire and motivate their team to deliver and perform at high levels.

8. Ask for input. Young leaders often believe they need to have all the authority and all the good ideas, and that asking for advice would be sign of weakness. The best young leaders frequently asked others for input. They would never discourage others new ideas but rather encourage them. They would reach out to others for input. Doing this build a positive bond with older employees.

9. Build trust. The most effective young leaders are trusted. There are three ways to build trust in others. First, trust comes from positive relationships. Second, we trust others who have good insights, knowledge, expertise or judgement. Third, trust comes from consistency. If older direct reports do not trust their manager that is a huge problem.

10. Innovate. The most effective young leaders were viewed as innovators. Previous leaders might have resisted innovation but when young leaders lead the effort to innovate they were seen as much more effective.

As you read through this list, select two or three of these ideas where you have some passion or energy to improve. And here’s a radical idea: consider sharing this list with your older team members and ask them for feedback on how you’re doing on each of these regards. Their answers may enlighten you both.


This article was written by Joseph Folkman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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