Question: How do I overcome difficulty in managing older employees?

Working in a corporate environment, one of my long-standing improvement needs have been in effectively managing people who are much older than me.

My leadership style is casual, friendly and collaborative... and I have difficulty working with people who are not open to new ideas or take themselves too seriously.

For my next role, I have an interesting opportunity to graduate from my corporate leadership program, to manage a really good team of engineers. One big hurdle — I have to manage an SME senior engineer (nearing retirement age) who is also a likely contender to the position.

It is an exciting and intimidating opportunity. This role can open many future possibilities, but I can see it being very stressful for me.

Appreciate your advice, before I confirm or decline the offer.

11 Expert Insights

Well, I have managed older employees when I was young & I have been managed by young, whipper-snappers when I was old. I liked the former better than the latter.

First, I would say, don’t assume there will be difficulty in managing him until you experience it. Start positive & let him & all the others know how much you are looking forward to working with them. I would let him know how much his experience can help the group.

I don’t know if your goal is to sustain success or to turn the group around. If it is a turn-around situation, it may call for being a little tougher up front. I also don’t know if you want to retain him.

I would advise against coddling him unless you are really worried about his leaving. I am also not that much into generational differences, but that’s because I’m an old fart. The situation is what it is. You’re the boss & you need to work together. Don’t make it complicated.

You may discover he is enthusiastic & supportive of your leadership. If so, treat him like everybody else.

You may discover he is disappointed, in which case, you may need to provide some support & assurance and ask him about the legacy he wants to leave.

You may find he is bitter, in which case, you need to be really clear about your expectations for the changes you want to make & indicate he can be part of those changes or not.

In any case, my advice to you is don’t let it be stressful. There are lots of other more stressful things about being a leader. Remember, you are the boss, you should listen for understanding, but in the end, you get the final say and that’s why you get the big bucks.

One approach would be to talk with him or her about how you are similar and different in terms of values, priorities, preferences, etc.  You might discuss generational differences as a starting point while recognizing that norms or stereotypes for each generation (e.g. baby boomers) are just that......and don't account for individual characteristics. The key would be to seek to build trust by helping each other understand the other and, to the extent possible, having an open and straightforward conversation. You might then gain insight for helping you deal with him or her.  

I've faced similar circumstances in my own career. Great opportunities to test whether we're as good as we think we are!

What worked for me was to adopt a full-on "servant leader" approach to my older-than-me direct reports, asking them:

• Tell me how you want to be managed?
• What type of support do you want...or not want...from me?
• Do you prefer me to ask you for updates or you to provide your updates to proactively?

Based on what they say, negotiate, as needed:

• "Sure, I can check in with you no more than once/month, but then you need to check in with me every Thursday at 2pm because if I don't know what you're working on I'm likely to make some pretty lousy decisions on your behalf."
• "Oh, Thursdays won't work? Okay, then when before that would?"
• "I understand you think you could do my job better than me, and quite possibly you can, but what I want to know is what would demonstrate otherwise to you? Let's talk about what would make me the best boss you've ever had and see if I can rise to the challenge?"  

A lot of this has to do with your poise; your grace under fire, as it were. So keep in mind that your boss picked you, no doubt, because s/he thought you were capable enough to handle the challenge. Proving him/her right about that will serve you, your boss, and your direct reports well.

Let me know if you'd like to talk through some of the follow-up questions you, no doubt, have.

Joan (above) has asked some very good questions that are all worthy of examination.  I too am curious to know how much of your interpretation of the situation is fact or assumed?  I believe that going through the questions Joan posed to you will be of clear value in helping you move forward.  Acting on what we know to be factual is always likely to deliver more successful outcomes.

With that said and presuming that your interpretation is factual, there is a process in coaching that involves designing an alliance with your 'customer' ... in this case the Senior Engineer.  This involves having a discussion that will reveal what each of you want to count on the other for in your relationship in general .. and in any specific meeting in particular.  Finding out from this person how you can support him in the work he does as well as telling him how he can help you be successful as his manager is a good starting place.  When one takes over a management position in any situation, designing an alliance with each person he/she oversees is a good way to learn about the whole group.  As you have probably discovered, there are only so many things you can do using the broad stroke of the paint brush.  At some point, in order to maximize your effectiveness, it requires that you come to know and deal with each person as an individual.

Please don't hesitate to reach out to me if there is more discussion desired.  Your sensitivity to the situation is admirable.  Taking the right actions can deliver terrific outcomes ... to the organization and to you personally.

You certainly must be doing something right since the company obviously has the confidence to place you in leadership roles at a relatively young age - congratulations! The opportunity you describe, managing a really good team of engineers, is a challenge regardless of your age. In my experience, knowledge workers like engineers tend to respect most those with similar technical knowledge and skills. They generally do not appreciate being told what to do, especially not by anyone they perceive as less knowledgeable and skilled. The philosophy of servant leadership should play well with this group, and fit with your collaborative style.

You also mention being casual and friendly as part of your leadership style. There may be some risk in this style for this situation because it may reinforce a perception that you're not sufficiently seasoned to be taken seriously in a leadership role. One of the demands on great leaders is that they adapt their style to suit the situation, and here being businesslike and respectful might take you farther.

Since you also mention some difficulty working with those not open to new ideas or those who take themselves too seriously, it might be well for you to seriously consider how you'll manage yourself when your senior engineer competitor manifests exactly those attitudes and behaviors. Hopefully your corporate leadership program included some work on emotional intelligence, which might come in very handy.

Be careful not to stereotype older workers. Find out each person's specific agenda and work to meet it. When anyone, old or young, knows that you not only respect and value them but are in their corner, they will do his best for you.

Good luck. Contact me if you'd like to talk.

It's not difficult.

Few things to keep in mind that might help.
1. Avoid assumptions
2. Dump Preconceived notions/biases
3. Communicate effectively
4. Lead, don't manage
5. It's not so much age but credibility
6. Go for respect instead of being liked
7. Pick up the First Break all the Rules book
8. Find out how you can further the mission and purpose of those you lead

I Coach a lot of guys close to retirement. It's not any harder or easier than 20 somethings... Just different.

Just reach out if I can help further your efforts

Interesting challenge though not uncommon. The real key will be for you to truly understand the generational differences on all levels - social, economic, political, communication style, values and beliefs, working styles and perception of work, etc. All of these factors are critical to your success, and can be applied with conscious effort on your part. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. Thanks.  

It's important to understand the evolving multi-generational nature of your workforce.  Each of those engineers has a different learning style, engagement style, goals and objectives.  It is critical to take the time to understand this.

I served 25 years in the USAF and I remember that I often had to lead, support, collaborate, and manage airmen many years my senior. I remember the advice I received from a Chief Master Sergeant the second day of my career when I was 2Lt. He told me that my job was to support the troops, ensure they had what they needed for success, make the tough decisions for them and the unit when I had to, and cover their backs...and in turn they would cover mine and teach me what I needed to know to be a successful officer.

Over time, I understood that we were talking about "servant leadership," and it's been in my toolkit ever since.

Traditionalists are all about leaving a legacy as they depart; so, ask him to be your mentor -- he'll no doubt provide you with the insights you'll need to connect the dots and turn your knowledge into wisdom (organizational savvy and agility).

Be confident, compassionate and humble; never aggressive, arrogant, and aloof.

Most likely the major difference between you and the older generation is the level of experience, specific professional knowledge and expertise.  None-the-less, seek out those people, communicate with them, ask many questions, ask for their opinion on matters other than their specific field of expertise, and include them in various discussions, regardless of their attitude toward you, the company and their future plans (i.e. retirement).

Further, insure everyone is working toward the same organizational vision and missions. Look for areas to improve, then include everyone into your ideas of the changes to get them onboard with you about the changes, insuring they understand the reason the change will improve their own productivity.

I'm sure you will find it easier than you suspect.  Good luck in the endeavors.