Writing on Harvard Business Review’s HBR.org, Liane Davey, co-founder of 3COze, Inc. and author of several books on leadership, shared the lessons she has learned in managing people both younger and older than herself.
“The most important lesson is to see past the stereotypes,” wrote Davey. “Generational differences are real, but we tend to make too much of them. Some of the behaviors or attitudes you might attribute to a generational difference are simply the product of an employee being at a different age and stage of life than you. The 23-year-old employee might act much more like the 63-year-old once she’s worked for 40 years.”
Age & Stage
Davey stressed that “age and stage” don’t explain everything, either.
“If you have multiple Millennials on your team, you’ll realize that neither generation nor age can explain how different the Millennials are from one another,” wrote Davey. “The majority of differences among employees are driven not by generation, or by age, but by their unique personalities. The individual differences within a generation are much greater than the differences across the generations. Take some time to consider each of your direct reports as a whole person — a function of their generation, their age and stage, and their personality. Don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing someone because of the year they were born.”
Davey urged managers to look beyond the simple stereotypes for clues as to why the person might be challenging their leadership.
“If you feel resistance from them, instead of getting frustrated, try empathizing. If you’re managing someone much older than you, they might have legitimate concerns about your leadership because your style is countercultural or just different from how things used to be done,” she said. “It’s also possible that their resistance isn’t about your leadership at all. Instead, they might be reacting to your youth because it reminds them that they have been passed on the career track. That’s not easy to accept.
When Managing Someone Younger
“If you’re managing someone much younger than you, the challenge to your leadership might be completely different,” Davey continued. “Maybe they experience your management style as slow and cautious, or even rigid. Don’t be surprised if they think your job looks easy and they’re frustrated that it is taking so long to get more opportunity. Regardless of the direction of the generation gap, ask thoughtful questions and listen carefully to learn from the answers. How is the employee feeling? What do they value? The more of these conversations you have, the more you will understand about how your team members are judging you and what your leadership is causing them to confront about themselves.”
Dave reminded that judgment is a two-way street, and just as employees are judging their manager, the manager is likely judging them.
“It’s critical to confront your own stereotypes about the generations. Until you shed these misconceptions, judgment will get in the way of building strong relationships with your team members,” she said.