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

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 5:54 p.m. MDT

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. (Creatas Images, Getty Images/Creatas RF) 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. (Creatas Images, Getty Images/Creatas RF)

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.

The Business Insider article further advises that when managing people who are older than you, you can't be afraid to be the boss.

"While collaborating with your team is great, you can’t be a pushover," the article states. "However, being the boss does not make you infallible, so when you make mistakes, address them in the way you’d want your team to handle their own."

I've written before about the dangers of playing the office blame game. I always try to admit my mistakes, and I think my team has appreciated that.

I've also developed the willingness and the ability to make tough decisions. In fact, since my team members have the expertise to do the day-to-day work of our department while I do not, I figure one of my most important roles is to make those decisions. The buck stops with me, as it should.

The final bit of advice I'll share from Business Insider is that younger managers should "portray confidence and openness simultaneously."

"Young managers are more likely to face doubts about their competence, so need to work harder to portray confidence but not overdo it with unnecessary displays of authority just to show who’s in charge," the article says.

That can be a fine line to walk when you're a young, relatively inexperienced manager, but it's worth the effort. If you can, with sincerity, show both confidence and humility at the appropriate times, you'll earn the respect of your team members, regardless of their ages.

I hope this helps my friend in Malaysia. Do you have any additional advice for someone in his situation? If so, please leave a comment or send me an email, and I'll share some of your ideas in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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