5 Tips For Managing Coworkers Who Are Older Than You

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Older and younger employee

Adobe Stock / contrastwerkstatt

Karen Schneider
Karen Schneider
July 23, 2024 at 9:51PM UTC
As an ambitious, career-driven millennial, you've dedicated yourself to learning as much as you can about your industry; intent on not only becoming a thought leader in your field, you truly enjoy your job and look forward to sharing your knowledge with others as hungry as yourself.
The time and hard work you've poured into your projects has recently paid off — you have just been promoted to a managerial position. The butterflies you feel are a mix of both excitement and fear. You know you've got the chops to tackle your new role and exceed expectations. What you're really worried about is learning the ropes of managing others — particularly those older than you.
No sweat — age is nothing but a number, right?
True professionals recognize that a title and/or talent are not correlated with a number, and that respect is a two-way street. Age has no bearing on the quality of work one can produce. Still, people may feel uncomfortable being managed by someone younger than them, particularly if they feel they should be in a more senior role than they are or, worse, the role you were just promoted to.
So, how do you deal? Use these guidelines to navigate this potentially tricky situation:
1. Get to know them.
This is a valuable and necessary tip regardless of age. Make a genuine effort to get to know each of your employees better (and especially if they are unsure of a younger person managing them). When you're just starting out in your new role, these early meetings are a great opportunity to informally "interview" your team and get to know them on a more personal level. And, remember to give them the opportunity to get to know you, too — trust is a two-way street.
Be your authentic self, and don't push too hard. Genuine working relationships are built over time and take a little work, but they will develop naturally if allowed.
Recognize that the unknown (you) can seem scary — the trick is to navigate with sensitivity, while not being a pushover.
2. Learn what motivates and excites them.
Now that you know your employees a little better, you can find out what makes them tick on a personal level. If you know their professional goals, you can help to better position them for success and ease their worries about working for a younger boss.
Make it clear you're interested in helping them find projects they enjoy and tackle new, rewarding challenges. If an employee feels like you are personally invested in their success, they're that much more likely to feel happy in their role — and much less worried about wondering what your intentions toward them are.
3. Value and respect their experience.
Treat this team member with respect and let them know you value their expertise and wisdom. Do not patronize, talk down to them, or act in a condescending manner—these types of actions will only hurt you. If you have the opportunity to solicit their feedback on a project, do so - it will only bridge the gap and show them that they are an important part of your team.
4. Similarly, respect tradition.
An older employee has both the advantage — and sometimes disadvantage — of having a complete history of certain technology, processes, etc. "It's always been done this way" is a phrase that has the ability to halt innovation in its tracks. However, before making any snap judgments, take the time to hear out your more experienced employee. Ask them for their feedback on your new proposed process. If there are aspects of the current method that make good business sense, consider their advice — and experience — as a benefit.
5. Don't assume older employees know EVERYTHING due to their age/experience.
A longer work history sometimes suggests that a seasoned employee has a vault of knowledge that perhaps you aren't privy to just yet, or that there isn't any learning left to do. This incorrect assumption can stump the growth not only of your employee, but your own growth as a new manager.  
Career development (and lifelong learning) should be non-negotiable as a must for any professional. It's your job to nurture and supply the training necessary to fulfill that requirement for your employees. Ask them what they want to know, need to know, and hope to know. You might be surprised at their responses.
7. But don't assume they don't know, either.
Millennials grew up with technology, and some would even say we are almost addicted to the different forms of it. For older workers, technology was introduced a bit later in life and may not hold as central a role in their daily lives (they may be less prone to scroll through Instagram upon waking up in the morning). However, this statement does not relate to all older people, just like stereotypes about millennials are often off-base. If you are discussing a topic you aren't sure your employee is familiar with, let them ask! Be careful not to insult them by making general, unfair assumptions otherwise.
You earned your promotion because it was well-deserved, and it had everything to do with your abilities, not with your age. Now, it's your job to remember that and act on it - do not be intimidated by the fact that someone has a longer work history than you do. Remain consistent as a leader, and don't hesitate to act as the qualified manager that you are.
Karen Schneider works for bareMinerals in Global Packaging + Creative Services, and has worked in a variety of industries over the span of her career, including digital media, fashion & apparel, and wine & spirits. She is a current contributor to The Muse and Career Contessa and has been featured on Business Insider and Harvard Business Review for her career advice. She's obsessed with learning, life, and career/self-improvement.

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