How To Work Successfully With A Younger Boss

Senior businessman working with younger colleagues
Senior businessman working with younger colleagues

It's no secret that the longer you work, the more likely it is that you'll eventually report to someone who's younger than you are. And as more boomers push off retirement in response to a challenging economy or simply because they prefer to work, the younger boss-older subordinate phenomenon is becoming more common.

For many boomers, being supervised by someone young enough to be their son or daughter can be a tough pill to swallow. But the truth is that having a younger boss often has substantial benefits. Many boomers, for example, find that working under a younger supervisor expands their knowledge of technology and introduces them to different ways of analyzing situations and making business decisions.

So don't get caught up in the feelings of resentment and self-pity that can frequently doom a younger boss-older subordinate relationship before it's begun. With a little effort, you can make your working relationship with a younger boss pleasant, effective and mutually beneficial. Here are some tips to getting it right.

Preserve protocol
Building a positive relationship with a younger boss starts with cultivating the right mindset. Above all, you must recognize that this person is your boss and that a big part of meeting your performance expectations is helping your boss meet his or her performance expectations. In other words, part of your job is to make your boss look great.

If you were passed up for your boss's job, you have two choices: 1) Stay, remain loyal, and prove you're capable of remaining even without a promotion, or 2) Leave. Hanging around and grumbling is not a viable option. And suing for employment discrimination is just one way of committing career suicide.

If you decide to stay, show that you respect your boss and that you are willing to work hard to help him or her accomplish his or her objectives. Instead of trying to win your boss over by flaunting your years of experience, prove that you are capable of meeting and exceeding your performance expectations here and now. And never go above your boss's head to complain. This is a surefire way to destroy the lines of communication and trust between you and your boss.

Learn how you and your boss can become a team
The chances are your boss didn't get to where he or she is by luck alone. So learn to acknowledge your boss's strengths and determine how you can leverage your own skills and experience to help your boss improve in other areas. For example, your boss may be a wunderkind engineer but could use your assistance in handling office politics and interpersonal situations. Or you might be able to utilize your understanding of how things work at your company to help your boss get things done better, faster, cheaper.

But don't expect your boss to come asking for help. Rather, go out of your way to show your boss that he or she has a resource in you. Try scheduling an informal one-on-one session where you and your boss can get to know one another, and where you can talk about your professional strengths and state your desire to lend a helping hand - if your boss feels the need and thinks it's appropriate. Be ready to offer your counsel when issues arise that call for your particular expertise, but be careful not to show your boss up. If you have trouble getting through to your boss, alter your approach. For example, rather than telling your boss what he "should" or "could" do, try reframing the suggestion in terms of your own experience: "When I had to deal with a similar situation, I found it useful to..."

Perhaps the biggest thing a seasoned employee can bring to a younger boss is a sense of historical context, which can ease the frenzy of challenging and ambiguous times. For instance, a 50-year-old client of mine who was turned down for a promotion at an asset-management firm found himself reporting to a 32-year-old "rocket scientist" who had no experience of going through a downturn. Because my client had been through several bear markets, he was able to provide history, context, and a sense of calm for his younger boss, who was tremendously appreciative. My client ended up with a substantial bonus at the end of the year.

Get beyond the stereotypes and stay flexible
Just because your new boss hails from Generation Y doesn't mean he's a social media junkie who can't string together a sentence. Age-based stereotypes are one of the biggest obstacles to a smooth ride with a younger boss, so rather than get tangled up in them stop assuming and get to know your boss as an individual.

Similarly, don't let your younger boss think you're a 'has been' or a 'dinosaur.' Be cognizant of the concerns your younger boss might have regarding you as an older worker, and take action to allay them. Don't be quick to shoot down a new idea simply because it's not how things were done in the past. Keep abreast of new trends in technology and embrace opportunities to develop your technical skill set. If you feel like you don't know where to begin, consider getting a reverse mentor or taking a class to get up to speed with recent technological developments that are impacting your field.

Flexibility is the key word here, with regard to both your expectations about your boss and your willingness to try something new. For example, if your younger boss communicates predominantly via instant-messaging and texts, keep your cell phone handy and gchat (or other preferred instant messaging application) open. It may take some time to acclimate, but you may also find that reducing the number of time-consuming face-to-face meetings is productive. Remember that unfortunately, many of us find that we spend too much time during the day in business meetings with little or no value.

Be authentic
One of the most egregious missteps I've seen older subordinates make is attempting to adopt a hip persona to try to "fit in" with their younger boss. If you're 50 years old, dress smart and professionally, but don't start sporting skinny jeans just because they're what all the 25-year-olds are wearing. And don't try to bond with your younger boss by adopting another generation's lingo, by swearing, or by pretending to be interested in things you're not. You'll come off as ridiculous, disingenuous, or pathetic -- or most likely, all three. Impress your boss with your energy, your willingness to try new ways of doing things, and by exceeding your performance expectations - not by being hip.

Remember they're your boss, not your child
For many boomers, working for a younger boss will mean working for someone your son or daughter's age. And if you're not careful, this could lead to all sorts of misplaced emotional responses and knee-jerk reactions. Make sure your professional assistance doesn't veer into parental meddling, or your constructive criticism morph into scolding. Never say or imply that your boss is behaving like your child or brandish the dreadful "When I was your age..."

It's a cliché, but age truly is just a number. While you and your younger boss may be separated by the years, it's very possible that you're connected by much more -- whether it's shared interests, a similar sense of humor, or simply the common goal of making your product, department, or company succeed. Don't let a simple matter of years stand in the way of a successful working relationship - and a paycheck.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

7 Ways To Smooth Over The Age Gap At Work (Or How To Behave If Your Boss Is Your Kid's Age)