Balancing act: Humility, confidence help when managing workers who are older than you

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 3 2013 9:05 a.m. MST

How do you earn respect as a manager when your team members are older and more experienced than you are? Here are some tips that may help.

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I've been a manager for more than 15 years, and I've got the gray hair to prove it.

Just kidding. I actually name each of the gray hairs in my goatee and on my head after my children. Now that I have two teenage daughters, one of whom is learning to drive, I'm likely to be completely gray within a year.

But I really don't mind going gray. When I started growing my goatee again three years ago after going beardless for almost a decade, I was kind of glad to see a few gray hairs in it. I figured it made me look "distinguished."

At least, that's my story.

Those same children who caused the gray hair in the first place probably think it makes me look old, but I can live with that. Even if it doesn't bring more obedience at home, the touch of gray could give me a bit more respect as a person of experience at work, right?

This is something I thought about occasionally when I started managing teams in my early 30s. I was often called upon to manage people who were either the same age as me or who were older, and I wondered how they'd respond to having a "kid" for a boss.

Fortunately, I had overwhelmingly positive experiences with workers of all ages, but I know that's not always the case for younger managers.

I recently received an email from a reader in Malaysia who asked a question that proves this point.

"I'm currently holding a post of director in a government sector, 15 staff reporting to me. ... My staff are all about my age and some are ... older than me," he wrote. "I was the deputy director, then was appointed as the director.

"My problem is, the staff always makes decisions without asking me. For your info, I was with private sector for six years. Please give me some advice. Is it because I'm too young to be in this position (30 years old), or am I too kind?"

Without more extensive knowledge of the particulars of your situation, that's hard for me to answer. However, I'm guessing that you wouldn't have been promoted to your director position if you didn't deserve it, so I'm going to say you're not too young for your job. And although you sound kind in your email, I don't think you're too kind to be a manager.

However, this still can be a difficult situation, so maybe I can share some ideas from my experience and from a recent Business Insider article that could help you manage people of all ages.

First, make sure you understand what each of the people you manage does during an average workday. When I changed careers a couple of years ago, I entered a field in which I had limited relevant experience. Immediately after starting, I held one-on-one meetings with all of my team members to get a better handle on their duties, and I followed that up by shadowing them on occasion. I've continued to hold those one-on-one meetings every other week.

This helped me as a manager in a couple of ways. For one thing, it showed my team members that I was genuinely interested in what they did, respected their skills and didn't feel like I had all the answers. I told them during our one-on-one meetings that I wanted to learn all I could about our operations so I could help them resolve problems going forward. I think both my older and younger team members appreciated that approach.

But these meetings had benefit beyond learning my team members' tasks because they also helped me learn about them as people. We continue to talk about both work and personal topics in our one-on-ones, and the information I've gathered in those meetings has been extremely helpful to me as a manager. When I understand the challenges people are facing in their personal lives, I'm better able to offer them flexibility when it matters.

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