Younger Managers; Older Workers

You can try these seven tips for better interactions with the older generations.

DOES your workplace suffer from a generational rift? If you're like the majority of companies, the answer is yes. However, today's pressing concern is no longer "how to manage the Generation X crowd." With the Gen X'ers now entering managerial roles, today's biggest concern is how these new young managers can effectively lead people their parents' age. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of workers ages 20-34 in the managerial category increased from 4.8 million in 1994 to 5.2 million last year. And the rank of young supervisors is expected to continue to swell as the 52.4 million people who compose Generation X assume managerial roles.

At no time in American history have so many different generations with such diversity in worldviews and work philosophies been asked to team up and work together. One of the keys to understanding the generational differences that exist is to know what the four different generations are and some of the basic values each group holds. Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak, authors of "Generations at Work," define the four generations working together as:

  • Veterans. This group was born between 1922 and 1943 and includes about 52 million people. As one of the older generations, these people prefer face-to-face interactions with supervisors over e-mail or voicemail, and they place a strong emphasis on teamwork.
  • Baby Boomers. This group was born between 1943 and 1960 and includes about 73.2 million people. They were born during or after World War II and raised in an era of extreme optimism, opportunity, and progress. Most Baby Boomers grew up in two-parent households with safe schools, job security, and post-war prosperity. Like the Veterans, they prefer face-to-face communication and value teamwork over individual achievement.
  • Generation X'ers. This group was born between 1960 and 1980 and includes about 52.4 million people. They were born after the Baby Boomers into a rapidly changing social climate and economic recession, including Asian competition. They grew up with both parents working, rising divorce rates, downsizing, and the dawn of the high-tech and information ages. At work, they can be fiercely independent, like to be in control, and want fast feedback.
  • Generation Nexters. This group was born between 1980 and 2000 and includes about 69.7 million people. They were born of Baby Boomer and early Generation X parents into our current high-tech, neo-optimistic times. They are the youngest workers, but they represent the most technologically adept. They are fast learners and tend to be impatient.

Keys to Effective Interaction
Knowing and understanding the differences between the generations of people you work with is essential because the interdependent nature of work today cannot succeed with the underlying tension of intergenerational conflict. With the continual rise of younger workers managing older workers, the young workers need to learn how to effectively manage their older employees.

Young managers can use the following tips to avoid a disconnect and miscommunication with their older employees and to gain their respect:

1. Be sensitive to emotional issues. As a young manager, you need to be aware of issues that will upset your older employees. For example, if you have a Gen X'er and a Veteran vying for the same promotion and the younger employee gets it, the older employee will be upset. He or she will feel that the company wasn't loyal to him or her. While the older workers realize the younger workers may have excellent degrees, they question whether the younger staffers know what they're doing.

When this happens, ask your older employees how they are feeling. Don't say, "I understand how you feel," because they believe you cannot possibly understand how they're feeling. Also understand that older workers may be resentful of you because you're making more money today than they did their first 20 years of working. However, by encouraging them to express their feelings, you'll forge a greater understanding and respect between the generations.

2. Realize change is harder for older workers. Older workers may be very set in their ways and resistant to change. For example, they may have trouble if you implement new systems or ask them to use new technology they're not familiar with. To help them get over this, explain the "why" of doing things. By explaining "why" you need them to do something a certain way, you open up the lines of communication. Use this open communication as a way to reap the benefits of the insight your older employees can offer.

3. Understand and use the older worker's preferred communication style. As a young manager who grew up with the technology of computers, you probably prefer to communicate via e-mail. However, your older employees prefer face-to-face communication. Older workers tend to view e-mail as cold and not very relationship-oriented, so you should regularly schedule face-to-face meetings with your older employees. Also, when you need to give them feedback, get up from your desk and walk over to them to give it. Or pick up the phone and call them. The more human contact you give them, the more respect they'll have for you.

4. Be coachable. As a manager, you should be coachable and able to take information from your older employees without feeling threatened by them. Think of your older employees as internal consultants. Realize that they are valuable assets to your company because of their many years of experience.

5. Know the difference between recognition and appreciation. As a member of one of the younger generations, you probably prefer to be appreciated rather than recognized. You are satisfied with a "Thank you" or acknowledgement for something you did. However, your older employees will want recognition. They want an outward sign of your appreciation, such as a plaque or an "Employee of the Month" award rather than a simple "Thank you" or "Job well done." When you give your older employees the recognition they deserve, they will be very grateful.

6. Know your stuff. Knowledge doesn't come only from book smarts. It also comes from experience. You have to work harder to appear knowledgeable to your older employees because they don't think you have enough experience. Knowledge is also one of the keys to creating trust. People respect people they like, but more important, they respect people they trust. Regardless of age, you always want to know your boss is trustworthy. So work on building that trust between yourself and all of your employees.

7. Ask great questions. Don't be afraid to say you don't know something. Always be open to asking your older employees questions. When you ask questions, they will be less likely to think of you as an "arrogant, know-it-all kid." Also, when you ask questions, ask open-ended ones rather than yes or no questions. Use the magic of 3s. For example, you could ask, "What are the three biggest challenges you are facing with this task?" Not only do you open the lines of communication, but you also show that you care about how they are doing on the job.

Managing for Success
As a young manager, you need to know and understand the differences in the values and beliefs of the older generations. Knowing how to manage older employees will help you reduce the inter-generational conflict within your company, thus improving working conditions and productivity. As a result, you will gain a greater respect for your older employees, and they will gain a greater respect for you as their manager.

This article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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