when you’re younger than everyone you’re managing

A reader writes:

I recently accepted a job as a low-level manager (of a team of 8). I’m an outside hire. I have never had a supervisory position before. These problems seem surmountable – I’m smart and competent and good with people. The biggest issue I’m having is that I’m in my mid-twenties, which makes me younger than everyone I’ll be managing. Even worse, I’m frequently mistaken for a high school student. I’m worried that no one will take me seriously or listen to me. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything I can do to make my age less obvious?

Well, the biggest thing to know is that most people will take their cues from you. If you seem hesitant or like you feel weird about the age difference, people will notice it, and it will become a weird thing for them too. If you act like it’s a non-issue, it will quickly become a non-issue to most (or hopefully all) of your managees. So the key is getting yourself into a frame of mind where you genuinely believe that your age is a non-issue and where you’re comfortable with your authority.

If it helps, picture yourself with your own past managers. Imagine one of them acting hesitant or uncertain about her authority, or making it clear that she felt weird that you were older than her. This would make you feel super weird about it too, right? Now imagine that she was instead completely matter-of-fact, betrayed no hint of possibly feeling odd about the age difference, and instead just moved forward and did her job as if ages were irrelevant. You’d likely adopt that attitude too, right?

To get into this mindset, think about why you were hired. Think about why you’ll do the job well. And think about how completely weird it would be to have a manager who seemed nervous about managing, and force yourself not to do that.

You should also think about how you present yourself. 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?  (And if you’ve had a manager who has done this stuff well, think a lot about how she operated and model yourself on her.)

And last, one other thing that’s important here: This is your first management position, and you shouldn’t wing it. Make a concerted effort from the start to educate yourself about how to manage well. Learn about how to delegate well, how to give feedback, how to set goals and hold people accountable to them, how to handle performance problems, how to develop good people, and how to exercise authority without being either an unreasonable tyrant or a wimpy pushover. (As it happens, I co-wrote a book that covers all that and more, but there are plenty of other resources out there too.)

What advice do others have?

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob*

    The right clothes can really make a difference here. I would try to dress as formally as is appropriate for your workplace.

    Of course, if this is not accompanied by AAM's advice, and you feel awkward or pretentious wearing a suit, this will inevitably just compound problems.

  2. Marjorie*

    I agree with Rob's advice. As someone who was in OP's position, I found that it was important to dress appropriately for the position, not my age. Appropriate hair is important too. I had a report who constantly complained that everyone treated her 10 years younger. once she straightened her hair and took it from obviously dyed blonde to her natural brunette, her lot just shot up. Superficial, yes. Effecive, even more so.

  3. Anonymous*

    I've been there! I was a solid 10 years younger than many of my direct reports when I was a new manager. AAM is right; if you exude confidence and know-how without appearing overly cocky, you will be alright. It can be challenging, and you will get people who push back against your authority, possibly because of your age. Don't lose your cool, don't throw a fit, just maintain your calmness and be firm.

    The worst first-time manager I ever dealt with was the one who believed that A) she would come in and automatically change *everything* about the department and B) threw a tantrum anytime things did not go her way. It was very obvious she was too young for the job.

  4. Jamie*

    I work with a woman who is in her mid-twenties and she's living proof that Allison's advice is dead on. She's very comfortable in her own skin and she's clearly expert at her job, without being cocky. She can ask for advice but still make her own calls.

    I'm in my early 40's and if I were in her department I'd have no trouble reporting to her.

    She's one of the most professional people with whom I've worked. And she's an engineer in a manufacturing environment – not exactly a field rife with women – and I can't think of anyone here who doesn't respect her.

    I think it's all in how you carry yourself – fake confidence if you have to, pretty soon it's a self-fulfilling prophecy and one day you'll find you're not faking it anymore.

    I found Marjorie's comment interesting about how her co-worker changing her look changed the perception of her at work.

    I wouldn't change my hair color for any job – even if there are studies showing a bias against redheads in the hiring process :).

    Seriously though, I think it's interesting that superficial changes can be more pervasive.

  5. leftyconcarne*

    This is a common problem in my field — often folks with a Ph.D. are younger than their students or other folks who work directly under them.

    The best bit of advice above is to remember that you were hired for a reason and that thinking about making a good first impression is important.

    Something that young Ph.Ds often do is to try to be too strict — and to apply every single thing their graduate education taught them… all at once. More seasoned managers tend to be open to changing what doesn't work and keeping (i.e. respecting) the things that work. This will go a long way toward earning the respect of the folks who have been there a long time, and who may have concerns about your ability to manage.

  6. leftyconcarne*

    ps.. my Dean is significantly younger than most of her faculty. A few had issues with her at first, mostly because she had a hard time articulating her reasons for making difficult decisions. Now she's doing very well and is the best dean I've had.

  7. Anonymous*

    I agree that your appearance and body language add a lot to how you are perceived and respected as a manager. Although women I think have a bigger issue with this than men–hair, shoes, accessories, these all affect other people's perception of you.

    The way you talk also affects that perception. If every other word of your speech is 'like' you are definitely not going to be perceived as older!

    Corporatespeak phrases like "I'll get back to you on that." or "Let's discuss this offline" or "I'll defer to you on this one" are good verbiage to have in your vocabulary for meetings or situations where you are looked to for a decision but aren't sure what to do. In time you'll need them less and less.

  8. Amy*

    As someone who is currently managed by a wonderful boss who happens to be 8 years younger than me, I can tell you 2 things that work very well. First is I never felt "managed" by this person. I always felt like a trusted partner. She never threw around her title with a "because I'm the boss" attitude, and I always appreciated that she valued my opinion and experience. Second is her expertise and professionalism. She took a different career track than I did which gave her different experience earlier on. She knows her stuff, but not in a "know it all" kind of way. So regardless of how old we are in relation to each other, I respect her greatly.

  9. Tracy*

    Maybe the HR experts can help readers understand how a person without supervisory experience got this job?

    He doesn't have the experience or the skills.

    How did HR let this get through?

  10. Ask a Manager*

    If no one could be hired for a supervisory position without having been in one previously, then no one could ever be hired for a supervisory position. Every manager had their first management position at some point, so I'm confused by the question.

  11. Dawn*

    I got my first supervisory job without having had ANY supervisory experience. It was painful, but I grew into it.

    I'm confused by that question also.

  12. Anonymous*

    @AAM and Dawn,

    How to get supervisory experience without being a supervisor? Managing a small project within your group, then a bigger one, and a bigger one, then a bunch of people. This is one of the main strengths of matrix management, imo. As a 20-something, I managed a project that included several folks above my pay grade, including the company president. And yes, I was required to fill out a performance review of each of my staff, including the president.

    Supervisory experience at an ever increasing level, or until the Peter Principle comes into play….lol

  13. Ask a Manager*

    Definitely, and I've written about those methods before. But the OP didn't say she hasn't done those sorts of things, just that this is her first official job as a capital-M Manager.

  14. Dawn*

    Anon @1:01 PM

    Thanks for the clarification. I misunderstood your first post. I didn't have any of this type of experience before I became a supervisor. It was sink or swim. It would have been useful to get a little experience first, BUT it has made me into a resourceful person.

  15. Kevin Eikenberry*

    I enjoyed the post and all of the comments. Let me take this commentary a slightly different direction. To summarize, confidence, dress, and humility are all great advice in this situation. What the comments haven't reinforced in the last point in the post: being a new supervisory/manager/leader is a complex thing and requires ongoing skill growth.

    One of the big mistakes I see is new supervisors assuming that it is the job of their organization to provide them opportunities to learn and grow in their new role.

    My suggestion?

    Don't wait! Find a mentor, become an intention learner, ask for more feedback from your team and your manager too. Beyond these important strategies, be a reader – whether great blogs, books and more.

    Lastly, let me suggestion our new online community for new leaders – http://BudtoBossCommunity.com – here you can find tons of free content that will help anyone with this transition.

    Thanks again for a great post and insightful commentary!

    Kevin :)

  16. Tracy*

    AAM, I'm sorry but you contradict yourself in just about every post.

    To justify the my question with "you got to start somewhere is, no will ever get into mgmt.", is hardly an answer, its a deflection.

    I've been reading this blog for a few weeks and am quite surprised by your lack of professional insight and often contradictory responses.

    Sorry but it seems to that's why you're no longer working in HR, rather as "free lance".

    Why don't you put your resume on line? Let's see what your experience is please?

  17. Class factotum*

    "Let's discuss this offline"

    Or maybe we could all agree to banish this and other cliches ("We're onboarding this person,") in favor of clear English. :)

  18. Shanmugam*

    I had this question too, In fact some people even feel guilty about managing people who are older than them.. This post is the right answer to the question

  19. Question-asker*

    Tracy, in my field, supervisors are typically just people with a different skill set from their supervisees – the managerial stuff will be a small part of my job, as these people are professionals who will continue to work mostly autonomously. (Also, I’m female, with lots of experience and skills – just not in capital-M management.)

    Thank you for the advice, AAM. I think part of my problem is that I’ve had a number of younger managers who haven’t been respected, but in retrospect that’s probably because they weren’t very good managers who had no confidence in themselves or the people working for them, not because they were young.

  20. Anonymous*

    I am a young manager as well, and have been so for four years. What has worked for me is (1) dress the part; (2) don’t talk about age-related issues; (3) address your older and younger employees the same; (4) be confident in yourself and your abilities; (5) be humble enough to learn from your staff.

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