My father-in-law, Bob Irvine, never lectured me when I was a young manager supervising much older employees. Instead, he laughed at "those young college guys who come in thinking they know everything and trying to prove to their bosses how smart they are. They sweep into the department acting like most of what we've done for years needs to be fixed. It takes nine months to train them on what doesn't work when they get out of the classroom and into the real world. Then we can get back to making steel . . . for six months until they get transferred and we have to start over again with another one."
Even though Bob's been gone more than a decade now, these conversations we had while working on a car or cooking at the grill came back to me last week during a management seminar I was teaching. A participant asked one of the most common questions about generations: how do you manage people in generations older than you? The Millennial and younger Generation Xer managers nodded when I answered: the research shows that when a person is old enough to say to their boss, "I have boots older than you," their boss has to lead rather than try to tell them what to do. Managing rather than leading is the most common problem that gets young managers on the road to a "big fail" with older employees.
I've seen young managers make three mistakes most often that keep them from leading employees the age of their parents.
1. They try to show more experienced employees who's boss.
My father-in-law didn't need a new manager to show him that he was the boss. Bob didn't have a college degree, so he knew he would never be "the big boss." More than that, he knew his young boss was on the hook to get results if he or she wanted to keep his or her job. He told me once about a new boss, "If this young guy would just quit trying to show us he's boss, we would give him a chance to show us he's got what it takes to be the boss."
If you treat your older employees with the respect your parents taught you to give their friends, your older employees will want you to succeed and work to help you - just like your parents' friends did when you sold Cutco knives one summer or needed an inside track to an internship.
Then, in those rare times when you need to play the boss card and "lay down the law" with an older employee, his peers will back you up. They know if you let someone get by with underperforming or coming in late, you'll lose respect.
2. They think the older employees are stuck in their ways.
Let me just say it: some long-term employees are stuck in their ways. They're comfortable doing their job the way they've always done it and resist change because they don't want to learn to do things a different way. But research consistently shows that it's a myth that most older employees are more resistant to change.
Ironically, many younger employees are stuck in their ways. They leave if they don't like the technology, communication style, or work/life balance approaches of older generations. Point is, we are all stuck in our ways; labeling one generation as change resistant not only isn't true, it also doesn't help. Stereotypes never do.
Because they've been around longer, older employees have seen a lot of naïve, needless change. Yes, older employees are resistant to change when the goal is simply to make the manager look good, when the goal doesn't make sense, or when it's change for change's sake.
3. They copy the command-and-control style that has been used on them.
People who are older have told people who are younger what to do for centuries, so while we may not like it, we all got used to it from our parents, teachers, and first part-time job supervisors. So it's only natural that we would start off our management career using the approach that's most familiar to us.
But command-and-control management approaches get people into trouble when they use them on employees who are their parents' age. We are used to being told what to do by older people; it's awkward when it comes the other way. But even worse, despite what we hear, the younger two generations accept command and control management approaches better than the older ones. The international staffing and human resources firm, Randstad, discovered that while 4 out of 10 Millennials (42 percent) and Gen Xers (40 percent) appreciate the authoritarian management style, fewer than 3 of 10 Boomers (29 percent) and 2 of 10 Traditionalists (18 percent) think it works. It's not the best approach for any generation, but it will get you into trouble quickly with the older generations.
Randstad's study showed that the older generations strongly prefer managers who are respectful and approachable, just as the Gen Xers and Millennials do. So drop the command-and-control style, show respect for your older employees' experience and loyalty, and be open when staff of any generation questions your decisions, and you'll succeed at supervising people the age of your parents. Your staff the age of your siblings won't complain about you either.
Haydn Shaw is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get Four Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. He blogs about generations, leadership, change management, and teams at mygenerationalcoach.com.