how to manage a team that’s older than you

A reader writes:

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 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 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 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 wants 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 how 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 does undermines you. Truly secure managers ask for input and solicit perspectives other than their own – and that will do far more to establish your ease in 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 it 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 it you did feel confident. If it helps, trying 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.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick

    I guess a sign that I’m getting old is that I haven’t had to manage anyone considerably older than I am for a while.

    I am curious about #8 and how I could have handled a situation several years back better. I was a relatively new manager, in my late 20s, and was given a direct report who was in her 50s. This woman had a cantankerous personality that I’m sure had nothing to do with her age. She had made a career change to get into my industry, so despite her age I was considerably more experienced.

    There were a couple of times I asked her to do XYZ, and she balked at it. I don’t remember the specifics any more, but I do remember her saying to me, “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”

    Now that I’m older, I have the confidence to say, “You have life experience; I have industry experience. I’m going to need you to do what I asked,” but back then I didn’t. I ended up managing around her rather than giving her a choice of correcting her attitude or leaving the organization. But…can firing someone because she’s holding her age over your head be considered age discrimination? (I’m not talking about what it is in reality — I’m talking about whether a lawyer or a court would see it that way.)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, you wouldn’t have been firing her because of her age, and so you wouldn’t have framed it that way. You would have clearly stated that you were firing her because she was refusing/resisting doing what you asked her to do.

    2. Chinook

      I think pushing back by pointing out that you have different types of experiences can atleast gove someone a chance to listen to you while saving face. As a 22 year-old teacher, parents would pull the “when you have kids…” line and I learned to wuickly counter with “probably but when you have to deal with 30 teens at once, you might see why I am concerned.” (the counter to “you don’t know my kid like I do” is “but you have never seen your child when you are not around/when they are in a large group of peers).

  2. Noelle

    This is a slightly different issue, but one thing that has become a lot more common during the recession is having to manage people older than you who are interns/temps/volunteers. I’ve been in this situation a lot because I’m in a field where having a law degree is extremely common (I am the only person in my office, including the interns, who doesn’t have a JD). I chose to work full time and go to a grad school program at night, and it ended up being much better for my career but it means that I am often overseeing people who desperately want my job, and who have a major qualification that I don’t have.

  3. Kate

    What I consider to be some of the best management advice I’ve ever received I got was at 18 by a guy who was 17. I was just starting to manage the cashiers at a grocery store and was nervous. Most of the cashiers were either my age or older. He told me even if I had no idea what I was doing to fake it like I did and people would believe me. He told me to say something with confidence and people would go along with it. Fifteen years later and I still think about that.

  4. Ann Furthermore

    #6 is such a great piece of advice — treating everyone the same way. The example of not joking around and being casual with younger staff members, and then turning serious with older ones, is a perfect example. To build on that, I would also add that you shouldn’t assume that just because older employees may be the same age that they’ll automatically be friends, or even get along.

    I had 2 ladies working for me a few years back, both in their early/mid 60’s. Both had kind of a prickly exterior that could make them seem unapproachable or difficult to work with. And because on the surface they seemed like 2 peas in a pod, everyone assumed they were great friends. They had very similar jobs, so had to work together quite a bit.

    Employee A, let’s call her, Sally, was very politically conservative and a devout Christian. She referred to her job (clerical/administrative accounting type work) as “the Lord’s work.” As in, “I just come to the office every day and do the Lord’s work.” When my boss and I asked Sally about her plans to retire, as she’d been talking about it for awhile, she said that she’d “told the Lord” that she would keep working until a specific date, due to some personal/family obligations. Nothing wrong with that — but it was very clear that her faith was a very big part of her life. She felt that the world was full of blasphemous heathens, as evidenced by people drinking, doing drugs, living in sin, tattoos, being Democrats, and a whole host of other things.

    Then there was Employee B, let’s call her Jane. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that Jane had a bit of a hippie-chick vibe, who had been, shall we say, quite the free spirit in the 60’s and 70’s. She told me some hilarious stories about her adventures back in the day. My favorite was about a roommate’s boyfriend, who was not the brightest bulb who ever lived. After a night of partying, he woke up with a hangover, and they advised him to take some Alka-Seltzer. Which he did — but just took the tablets without dissolving them in water, and then came wandering out of the bathroom foaming at the mouth. Ha!!

    So, even though Sally and Jane were about the same age, they truly did not get along at all. Sally thought Jane was a wanton heathen, and Jane thought Sally was a mean, uptight, judgmental harpy. Not surprising, when you consider what completely different people they are. But because, superficially, they appeared to have so much in common, everyone assumed they were BFF’s.

  5. Puddin

    Maybe a quick lesson from a salesperson mentor on how to establish authority and expertise might help? If your employees see that you believe you should be in charge, then they will likely mirror that idea with their behaviors and support. Do you need to persuade yourself that you have earned this management role? Then start on that first. Without your confidence, your leadership will seem hollow regardless of any age difference.

  6. EngineerGirl

    Alison’s suggestions are excellent (as always). I’d like to add some more from my experience from the technical side:

    * I see the assumption that an older worker must be mediocre if they aren’t the VP. Many people assume that someone that is successful will go up through management – and it isn’t true. Some people truly desire to be the technical expert instead of the manager. They prefer to be the kingmaker instead of the king. Don’t assume that the older worker is not in management because they lack a skill set. Some people don’t want to put up with the drama of leadership.
    * You may be brilliant, but you still don’t have experience. The older worker has a lot of tacit knowledge that will benefit to you. Always as “why” before saying no.
    * On a side note, never forget Dunning-Kreuger. You don’t know what you don’t know. You may think you are highly experienced, and you may not be. When I was in my 40’s I thought I was an expert. Looking back, I can see that was a foolish assumption.
    * If an older worker tells you something is broken, listen and ask questions. They may see indicators that a less experienced person is missing. I can’t tell you the number of times where a brilliant younger person has the basics, but they don’t know what they don’t know.
    * Technology changes. what used to be impossible may now be possible due to changes in technology. If the older worker says “no” find out why. You may both be wrong.
    * Respect the older workers opinion. Again, find out the why. They may be thrilled to mentor you in how things ***really*** work. These people know the locations of all the monsters in the swamp.
    * Older workers may need more flexibility. They are taking care of parents AND taking care of kids. Want a happy worker? Flex time, telecommute, FMLA, etc.
    * Don’t assume that older workers don’t know technology. Some of us invented it! That means we understand the guts of it better than some of the younger workers. What we may not be familiar with is the new uses of that technology (the app side of things). Mini classes are great. But ask first – they may already know how to do it. Or they may know the basics but that’s it. Ask, ask, ask.

    1. Gilby

      Great points.

      Both parties, young manager and older employees need to see that they can blend all their knowledge to have a very effective department and work output.

      Acknowledge to yourself ,that your employees do have more life and work experience than you. They have gotten where they are because of that. They have done something right. Just like you are now a manager. You did something right.

      ” Use ” each other for that ! You all have something to contribute.

    2. Prickly Pear

      +1 to the thought of being okay with #2. I always joke that my ego can handle being second in command, but I can’t be a redshirt. With no false modesty, I can say that a lot of people asked me when I first started with my company why didn’t I go to school and get the degree- and the answer wasn’t straightforward, but a big part of it was I knew I’d be going with the expectation of having a managerial position as soon as I had paper in hand, and also knowing with all my heart what a bad manager I’d be. My employees would do nothing but write to AAM all the time!

      1. Gilby

        Well.. give yourself credit for recognizing your perceived shortcomings…..

        Just the fact that you didn’t go into managing because you didn’t feel you’d be good at it actually speaks very highly of you.

        That actually is a good trait in manager……… knowing your liabilties and assets : )

  7. Paper

    This is really interesting for me – I’m project manager for a fairly big product launch at my company, and as part of that role, I’ve got to call on segments of other employees time, and manage them within my project. I’m only responsible for a quarter of their time (yay, multiple donor-funded projects!), but I need them to be effective, and to accept the calls I make.

    Many of these employees have been with the company for longer than I’ve been alive, they’ve all got vastly more academic qualifications and experience than I do, better networks…
    So it’s important that I recognise that. What I bring to the table is business experience and product design experience. What they bring to the table is, quite literally, lifetimes of subject specialism. They’ve tried to launch this before, but the project got bogged down in minutiae and little-picture stuff. I need to manage that subject specialism to get the best product. Sometimes, it means saying “I appreciate your point, but for the purposes of this launch, we need to simplify that considerably to X instead”. Sometimes it means sitting down and getting to the bottom of their concerns about the development process I’m leading them down, so they can see the road ahead (and start flagging potholes…). Occasionally, it means dumping a prototype and starting again from scratch. Tbh, managing older staff isn’t that much different to managing substantial experience in general. Own your role, and enable them to own theirs.

    1. Amy

      Same here! I’m a project manager for a software company and I am 34. While I don’t have direct reports, I do manage my project teams and spend most of my day telling 50 year old men what to do, and what I need. I treat them the same way I treat the 20 year olds.

      What is important to understand is that alot of people start to “level out” in their 40’s, where if they are making a comfortable salary they don’t care to keep moving up and up and also don’t want the unwanted added stress and hours.

      I know for me, at 34, I would like to move up a level or 2, and that is it. I want to move up 2 more levels to be at a better salary bracket, have additional challenges, but also not drive myself crazy. i can see this happening around age 40.

  8. Laurie

    What on earth type of position do you have where you manage 5 older people and are only in your late 20’s? I am thinking you either work for a small company or are a STEM professional.

    I just don’t think someone in their late 20’s has enough life experience to manage people. You’ve what, been out of college for 7 years? PU-LEEZ!

    1. Another English Major

      You are assuming a lot. Maybe the OP didn’t go to college. Some people start working at 16 and work their way up. Happens a lot in retail and hospitality industries, I’m sure there are more.

      Military officers who are recent grads also manage enlisted members who are older than they are.

      There are many scenarios where someone in their late 20’s manages people who are older. I don’t think it’s a big deal if they have the work experience.

      1. Gilby

        Agree with English…….

        I was managing at about my mid 20’s. I worked my way up and had awesome mentors. And I listened.

        I had made a name for myself without really trying as such. Just did my job. I did not say…. I AM HERE….. promote me. They saw it.
        For my major promotion, I was grabbed while shopping with my mom at the flagship store by an manager I worked with before.
        (Same company) He already knew what I was like.

        I managed 1 asst manager, 2 supervisors 2 leads and 20 employees. I was 26. I am not saying whether I was good or bad as that was for the dept to decide. I am just saying you have to start somewhere.

        People either have the natural ability to manage or they don’t. Yes many times the skills need to be honed in on and tweaked but bottom line you have it or you don’t.

        I have had really bad managers that were how old? Didn’t matter because they sucked. They sucked because they didn’t know how to manage. 90 or 29 they are not managers.

        Being open-minded is what matters. Knowing you don’t know everything matters. Knowing that you are always learning matters. Not letting the power get to your head matters.

        I had a manager that was so controlling…. she was in her early 40’s she wouldn’t let go of the supply cabinet key…. to me the supervior. Another one who had ” life experience” as she was older….. mid 50’s but pounded her fist on her desk while yelling at my co-worker . So the life exp arguement holds little water. Some… yeah… but again…. you either have it or you don’t.

        You gotta start somewhere…. if the OP has a chance now go for it.

    2. Prickly Pear

      If you ever use a chain pharmacy, take a moment and find the oldest employee. There’s a good chance that’s not the pharmacist.
      The majority of my pharmacists have been younger than me, starting when I was 26. My boss now is younger enough that I could’ve babysit him growing up- which is not something I plan to point out any time soon!

    3. Kat

      Wow, you’ve made quite a few assumptions there… including an age-ist assumption that managers have to be old.

      FWIW, I am female and work for a large (>5000 staff) company, in the conservative world of construction. I finished my engineering degree at 23, was managing several site teams at 24, and managing other professionals by 28.

      My company put me in these positions because I am very good at what I do, which includes managing people of all ages/varieties. There is no “minimum age”, just a minimum amount of managerial skill. If an employee (of any age) had an attitude such as your last three sentences reflect, they would be told to worry about their own career and not mine.

    4. MaryMary

      I was also managing in my mid 20s. Consulting/professional services, Fortune 500. Most of the people I managed were my age or younger, but I had a couple folks older than I was (including a woman in her 60s who’d recently gotten her bachelors, and my former new hire “coach” – that was awkward).

      You’re also overlooking industries like food service or retail, where many smart, hard working young people quickly move to management. On the other end of the spectrum, my best friend is finishing her medical residency, and she recently had an intern in her late 50s (a pharmacist who went to med school).

      I’d love to see a post on how those of us who are not so young anymore can work with a younger manager. I’m currently working closely with the CEO’s son, who’s about five years younger than I am. So far, it’s going well, but that’s a tricky line to walk (for multiple reasons).

    5. MJ

      I’m 23 and I manage a team of seven. Large company, didn’t go to college — started doing data entry and worked my way up.

  9. Not So NewReader

    Something that was a huge help to me was learning individual skills. “Where does this person excel?” If I was busy thinking about Jane is good at X, Bob is good at y then I was not thinking about how old they were. (Not trying to sound snide here, I had to distract my mind and force myself to feel less self-conscious.)
    What happened next was pretty cool- I learned who was the best person to ask what type of questions or which tasks. It did not take long for the team to figure out that I had an equal interest in everyone. Although different people needed different types of support from me, they knew they could talk to me about a problem. I learned I did not have to have all the answers, I just had to have a reasonable idea on how to find the answers. (That was such a relief.)

    Rule number 1: If you want to be a good boss- never, ever talk about one employee with another employee. (I mean idle talk, gossip, complaining- the stuff that has no point and goes no where.) Everyone, no matter their age, will be watching to see if you talk behind others’ backs.

    Age does not matter in this regard- everyone wants to be respected and to be recognized for what they bring to the table. Keep this in mind and it will get easier soon.

  10. MaryMary

    Fake it until it’s real is such great advice, in general. It’s all tone. It is always appropriate to say, “I’m not 100% sure, let me check and get back to you.” To your direct reports, to your superiors, to your clients, to ANYONE. It’s your tone that says, “I’m a stickler for detail and don’t want to misinform you, so I’ll send you the specifics later.” versus “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

    When you’re a people manager, it’s fine (or even preferable) to go back and ask someone or do some research before responding. Even if you get formal training, like I did (How to Minimize the Possibility We’ll Be Sued, in 8 Hours), you will run into odd and amazing and tragic interpersonal issues. You don’t know what you don’t know, but someone else can help you figure it out.

  11. TheSnarkyB

    Is it just me or is there a missing logo here?
    (I like to see it so I can scroll past the external posts, for many reasons. Can be frustrating if I’ve pre-loaded the page for a subway ride, etc.)

  12. The Examiner

    I think there are some work situations when it’s nearly impossible to get your employees to ignore your age, regardless of how professionally you try to manage them. I work in an office where they hired someone my age (27) to manage an office of mostly 50-somethings. The problem is that they treat him with respect in their direct interactions with him, but as soon as he leaves the room they start to take jabs at him that from my perspective seem to be about age difference. It’s always something about how he’s too enthusiastic or too high energy, or worse, they plan how to avoid implementing some of his IT solutions for things they’re used to doing on paper. And they do the same kind of thing to me as a co-worker, only they are more overt because I don’t have the authority. I still can’t get them to understand that I’m not “fooling around” on my iPhone, but using the work-related app that our manager told us during the retreat to become comfortable with. I’d say something to him, but I’m new enough in the office that I don’t want to be the one to light that powder keg.

  13. Caleb

    This is a situation that many young people are finding themselves in. They are leading a team or head or head of a project while leading many people that are older than them. I would be lying if I said that this is not challenging. The best thing to do is have confidence in your abilities and do not be afraid to let them help in guiding the project. Have a strong presence and be on top of the tasks.

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