Older workers who report to bosses who are the same age as their kids may feel more than just a little uneasy. A recent study published in the Journal of Organizational Psychology found that the arrangement may cause the company’s performance to falter too.
The study surveyed 8,000 employees at 61 German companies and found that at the companies with more younger managers of older employees, workers reported 12 percent more negative feelings on the job and fared worse when it came to top managers’ reports about financial and organizational performance.
So why is it? As noted by the Washington Post, while there is good to come from disregarding seniority and promoting younger people, there is also a downside: It can set up dynamics between colleagues that are not only uncomfortable for some, but can be detrimental to productivity if not well managed.
The formal name for it is “status incongruence.” Florian Kunze, a co-author of the paper and a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, told The Post that the situation of negative feelings can spread throughout a company and include employees who are not directly part of the unusual age supervisory relationship.
Kunze suggested that managers be trained specifically to deal with status incongruence and be more sensitive to these potentially uncomfortable relationships.
“When faced with being supervised by a younger person, older employees are forced to recognize their lack of progress,” Kunze and his co-author wrote in the paper. “Working daily under a younger supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace.”
Status incongruence is, of course, nothing new. The same dynamic emerged when women were first put in leadership roles supervising men.
The American Management Association notes that even as recently as a few years ago, people from different generations were separated at work by rank and status. Older employees filled the executive positions and the youngest worked on the front lines. But then came the recession and older workers found themselves having to delay retirement. A Harris Interactive survey on behalf of CareerBuilder.com found that 69 percent of workers 55 and older report to younger bosses. And it hasn’t been without its challenges, notes Generations At Work, a company that facilitates generational conflicts in the workplace.
Different generations have unique perspectives on everything from workplace humor to communication style to work ethic, notes the management association. Generational differences surface in even the smallest ways: Boomers prefer face-to-face communication; younger generations text. Boomers may feel awkward taking direction from younger bosses—and younger bosses may feel awkward dishing it out. The generations even define hard work and loyalty differently.
Heck, the generations even have differing views about what to wear to work. Just ask any post-55 woman who shows up for a job interview in a business suit only to be greeted by someone her son’s age wearing jeans and sneakers.