Anyone over a certain age has wrestled with the moment: realizing that your dentist, your doctor, your boss is young enough to be your daughter. Taking advice or direction from someone who seems to be a mere child can be tough. Managing employees who are older and may have more experience can also be a challenge.
For the first time, five generations share the workplace. Many “youngsters” are moving into management or running their own companies. The result? More employees report to a boss who’s younger than they are, often considerably younger.
That, on its own, can cause tension. That tension is likely exacerbated by generational stereotypes, which go both ways. Older employees are thought to be slow, technically ignorant, resistant to change. Younger employees are thought to be selfish, entitled, glued to their phones.
The truth, of course, is far more nuanced, and managers need to address stereotypes and other sources of resistance or resentment before problems develop.
Let go of stereotypes
Individual employees’ likes and dislikes, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses are diverse; their priorities are also affected by their age, education, cultural background, and financial situation. Therefore, managers of a team that is diverse in age and background face the reality that employees are at different stages in their lives: Some might be saving for their first house or starting a family, while others are fretting about the cost of putting two children through college. Some might value a raise more, while others are more motivated by a flexible schedule or benefits that include gym memberships and time for training that will advance their careers.
Some interpersonal tensions might be generational, in that people of different generations grew up with different expectations “of culture and communication, like around career development and feedback,” said Alex O’Connor, a senior writer and researcher at Jhana, a San Francisco–based company that delivers microlearning via email to first-level managers, especially those who are new to management. “This always gets chalked up to [Baby] Boomers growing up in a world where you could put in your hours, put your head down, and 40-plus years later come away with a pension, while Millennials (and maybe Gen Xers) don’t feel safe in one job and are also aware their best chance for advancement is actually by making a move to another company,” he said in an email interview. But there is more to the story. “While there is plenty of truth here, let’s not overlook that these groups are at different stages of their careers, and that’s just as big if not a bigger factor in what they now want out of their careers, jobs, and managers.”
That is, differences have less to do with belonging to a particular generational cohort than with age and individuality: People in their late 20s and 30s have always tended to be more concerned about starting families than people in their 50s; it has nothing to do with being a Millennial or a member of Generation Y.
As “Portrait of the Modern Learner” describes, employees of all ages have more in common than many managers assume. Their expectations—of their managers, of the digital workplace, of eLearning and other training—are remarkably consistent. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t tension when members of different generations work together and, more to the point, manage one another.
A common source of tension, according to O’Connor, is “an overarching difference in what people from different generations expect in terms of workplace culture and communication.” With younger employees favoring text and chat, and older employees favoring phone contact, many teams run into a problem: “too many ways to communicate, people relying on their preferred methods, and wires getting crossed, things getting lost,” O’Connor said.
What’s a manager to do?
O’Connor suggests that a manager facing pushback—say, from an older direct report—ask for help from that employee. It “doesn’t matter if you think the pushback is coming from genuine concern or from a place of resentment,” he said. “If it’s genuine concern, accept that they have plenty of valuable experience and see what they can help with and want to help with. It might not always be clear if an older direct report is feeling resentful. So by asking for help, it might actually become more obvious—because they’ll be reluctant to help.” In that case, he adds, asking for the resentful employee’s help might turn things around by causing the employee to feel guilty—and assuage that guilt by cooperating.
O’Connor cautions younger managers against anything that could look like favoritism, such as socializing with younger direct reports while excluding older employees. And, of course, he recommends “open, honest communication” to combat assumptions and find common ground.
Talking about preferences can help: for example, when teams confront the common problem of too many communication options and clashing preferences. “We [at Jhana] recommend managers and teams explicitly align their communication preferences and expectations: Let’s use email for this, chat for this. Let’s not ‘reply all’ when ‘X.’ Let’s be sure we send a chat message to confirm intra-team phone calls before making them; let’s have email policies like keeping them no more than one scroll’s worth of text, or no emailing after 5:00 PM except in emergencies, etc.,” O’Connor said.
There’s a dose of realism, too: “It’s so easy to jump to say, ‘open, honest dialogue,’” O’Connor acknowledged. “I think it works for aligning approaches to projects, but by itself is not enough for combating stereotypes.”
What else is there? How can teams overcome their assumptions and work together?
“That can be done by learning more about each other. Some tactics there might include: team lunches, setting up recurring team coffee chats, managers having one-on-ones, teams setting up shared team values (e.g., mottos, shared language, shared jokes, etc.), doing some ‘get to know your team’ exercises that get at the specific tension points like ‘how do you like to communicate or receive feedback,’ etc.,” O’Connor said.
Jhana has articles, checklists, and worksheets to guide managers who are dealing with team tension, he said, including articles on managing older direct reports and improving team communication. A new Jhana series on unconscious bias also addresses some issues that crop up when employees from different cohorts—including age cohorts—work together.