A reader asks: I recently started a job managing a team of five. I’m in my late 20s and several of my team members are older than me – one of them by several decades. I was hired because I’m good at what I do, but this is the first time I’ve had to manage people older than I am and I feel pretty awkward about it, especially when I have to provide feedback or give direction. How can I make this less uncomfortable for all of us?”
You’re not alone! Most managers go through this at one point or another, and it does feel odd at first to be managing people who have been working longer than you – but it doesn’t need to. Here are some ways to overcome the awkwardness.
1. Know that your employees will take their cues from you. If you seem hesitant or appear to feel awkward about the age difference, people will notice it and it will make them feel awkward too. But if you act like it’s a non-issue, it should quickly become a non-issue to them as well. After all, imagine if your own manager was younger than you and appeared hesitant or uncertain about her authority. You’d feel pretty weird about it too, right? Now imagine that she was instead matter-of-fact about it and simply moved forward and did her job as if ages were irrelevant. You’d likely adopt that attitude too.
2. Remember why you were hired. You were hired for the job because your employer thought you’d excel at it. Have the same faith in yourself that they have!
3. Realize that your age is probably a bigger deal to you than to your staff. Yes, it’s probable that they have noticed your age, but unless they’re very unusual, they’re not dwelling on it. If they’re good employees, they want to have a smooth relationship with you – because they want to be successful in their own roles. Support them in doing their jobs well, and they’re unlikely to mind how old you are.
4. Dress the part. Dressing as formally as is appropriate for your workplace can make a difference in how you carry yourself and in how you’re perceived. Make sure your clothes and your grooming are impeccably professional; now isn’t the time to push the boundaries of the company dress code.
5. Pay attention to the rest of your presentation too. Do you use language, mannerisms, or a tone of voice that unintentionally give off an “I’m young/uncertain/inexperienced” vibe? Or do you speak with confidence? Are you comfortable being resolute? Are you able to solicit other people’s input but comfortable making a decision of your own at the end of that process? Do you know how to give feedback without sounding nervous or apologetic or like a jerk?
6. Treat your older and younger employees the same way. Don’t joke around with the younger staff members and then turn serious with the older ones, or otherwise treat them differently. If you’re warmer to people closer to your age, your staff will notice – and it will undermine their respect for you and their trust that you can manage them appropriately.
7. Don't overcompensate in asserting your authority. Sometimes a manager who’s worried about being perceived as worthy of the role will lean too hard on their authority. Exercising authority just to prove that you have it actually undermines you. Truly secure managers ask for input and solicit perspectives other than their own – and that will do far more to establish your right to your position than making a point of authority for authority’s sake. That said…
8. If you sense an employee is resistant to your authority, address that the same way you would any other performance issue. Don’t excuse it on grounds of the age difference. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed you seem reluctant to take on assignments I give you. What’s going on?” Or, “I appreciate hearing your input, but ultimately I’d like you to tackle this project the way we talked about, and to give me the opportunity to weigh in before you make significant changes to plans we’ve finalized.”
9. Make sure you’re managing well. Don’t give people an excuse to dismiss your expertise. If your management skills are shaky or untested, learn all you can about how to delegate well, how to give feedback, how to set goals and hold people accountable to them, how to recognize and reward good performance, and how to handle problems.
10. Last, fake it until it’s real. The reality is, you might feel awkward about your age for a while. So fake it! Imagine how you’d act if you did feel confident. If it helps, try picturing a manager you’ve admired in the past, and act the way she acted! After a few months of this, it will probably become natural.