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Effectively Managing Employees Who are Older Than You

As our culture changes and grows, we see more and more younger people becoming leaders within their workplaces. Increasingly, individuals under 30 are given management roles due to their education, energy, or commitment to the mission of the company. Young people have so many strengths that are now being recognized and monetized.  As wonderful as this is, it also can create some difficult, confusing, and hard to navigate culture shifts within the workplace.

My baby face, circa 2016, right before my promotion.

My baby face, circa 2016, right before my promotion.

So why am I talking about this? Look at my face. I looked like an actual child. At the age of 23, I was promoted to Program Director of a small grant-funded nonprofit. Under me were four case managers and three house managers, ranging from 45 to 65. All of the other employees could have been my parents or even grandparents. The oldest employee had been at that organization since I was in middle school and suddenly, I was given the task of managing these folks and making organizational changes to improve the services we offered. This was a giant task in and of itself, as the organization hadn’t had a program director in years and there had been very little oversight within the organization, leaving room for documentation errors, service gaps, and a variety of other organizational issues. My role was to create a culture shift that was more effective in implementing strong, ethical service to our clients after years of spotty management and little accountability. It should be said that this is not the fault of any one person or group, but the nature of small nonprofits, as budgets rarely allow for this type of management during their lifespans.

So, what was I to do with this newfound responsibility and pressure to create a healthier and more effective organization? I was going to have to add responsibilities, be the accountability, and ultimately make tough decisions about the work responsibilities of the individuals under my management, who had been able to get by on bare minimums. This is a monumental task for any manager, but as someone who still looked like a child, I had to prove myself and find ways to manage my team in ways that would create buy-in and respect for what I was asking them to do. I never did this perfectly, but I was able to learn a lot about what works well and what doesn’t work well at all.

How do you manage a team comprised of people older than you? Here’s some of what I learned:

Start with the People. Take interest in your employees and show them you actually care about their lives and what they’ve learned over their years of experience. Take time to get to know your staff for the sole reason of getting to know them as human beings. Learn about their core values, their work style, and their expectations of you. Not only does this allow you to learn about them and have a better understanding of how they work and what they need from you as their supervisor, it lets them know that you care about them and their experience at your organization. It shows that you aren’t just there to change everything and make their lives harder, you’re there to help make positive change for everyone, including them.

Listen and Learn. Take time at staff meetings and around the office to ask your employees what they want and need, and what their opinions are of what needs to be changed and how they’d like to see that change happen. Their experience can provide necessary views of how changes may inadvertently affect productivity, what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and useful ideas of subtle changes you may need to suggest. Don’t forget that just because you are the boss, they still have invaluable expertise that comes from being the boots on the ground. Stay humble and show that you are willing to hear their opinions and expertise and that you understand that you don’t know everything. Show your employees that you are still eager to learn from them, regardless of your job title. Show your team that you respect their stories and their experience, and you want to learn from them as much as you want them to learn from you.

Be Kind and Understanding. Remind yourself on a daily basis that being led by someone much younger may be very difficult for your employees. This is a newer phenomenon that can be tough for older people to come to terms with, and that’s so understandable. It can be tough to see younger people promoted and hired at faster rates than their older counterparts, and some employees may have their own frustrations and emotions surrounding that. Be gentle and empathetic about this, and continuously show that you are trying to earn their respect and are willing to hear their frustrations when it’s appropriate. Always be open, honest, and genuine with your staff. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t; people can sniff that out from a mile away. Just be true to who you are and don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Be light and fun with your staff while also communicating your high expectations. This takes practice to find that balance, but once you find it, it’s magical.

Explain Your Background. One thing that can be so helpful is to explain your credentials early on. Don’t brag about your education or experience, just be matter-of-fact about why you were chosen for that position. Maybe it was your education, your drive, your passion, or your former experience. You want to build confidence in your team about your skills and understanding rather than creating resentment and bitterness. Focus on your prior achievements, your goals and vision for your team, and why you want to be there. Think of the first few weeks as an extended job interview; you want to win the team over and build a strong rapport with them before you begin any substantial changes, and part of that is letting them know why you are qualified for that position. Be confident, not haughty.

Hold Tight to Your Boundaries. It can be easy to give in to excess leniency out of discomfort with managing employees who are older than you if you aren’t firm on your boundaries or confidence. Lay down your expectations early on and show that you will not budge on those. At the start, these expectations may be bare minimums such as dress code, attendance, or quotas. You don’t want to set all new expectations for everyone at the front end; instead, raise them slowly, which I’ll talk more about in a moment. But stand strong and show that you won’t be bulldozed or ignored. It’s uncomfortable, and you may have to confront some employees individually about what is going on and why they have decided to drop responsibilities or cut corners. Always do this privately, gently, and matter-of-factly. You don’t want to be unreasonable but it is important to show that you do mean business and you’re there to do your job.

Don’t Change Everything at Once. This is a huge part of managing effectively, especially when you’re new or managing employees who are older than you. When you first start, try not to roll out any major changes for the first month. Give your team time to adjust to you and your new expectations before adding in new processes, rules, or regulations. Culture takes a long time to change, and if you do this too quickly, you are likely to face a lot of push-back and possibly even lose core team members. Recognize that change is difficult for people, especially if they’ve been doing things the same way for years and are now being told by a fresh new face that they suddenly have to do everything differently. Roll out your new ideas step by step so you don’t overwhelm anyone, and set aside time to walk through the changes and coach or teach team members as they need it.


Model Your Expectations. This is one of the most important things that I can stress. Never rely on just telling your team what they should do, SHOW them. Be an active part of the team and show that you are willing to do anything you are asking them to do. If you aren’t willing to do it, you probably shouldn’t ask them to. Always model the culture you are trying to build and truly walk the walk. Show them that you are an engaged and committed team member, not just someone who is going to bark orders or hand down mandates without any care for the effect it has on them. Remember that happy and engaged employees are often far more productive and effective than employees who feel they have no voice in their workplace.

None of us are ever going to be perfect managers, but as long as we are always humble, poised to learn, and able to claim our space, we can create happier, healthier, and more productive workplaces. For further reading or resources on leading teams, try some of the links below to see how you can be the best team leader you can be.

  • Identify your team’s core values and learn about creating a healthy company culture through the Barrett Values Centre. This link provides great information and tools for promoting positive and productive workplaces, and identifying ways to be a better leader.

  • The Balance Careers has this great article about how to understand the existing culture of your workplace, which can help you identify areas of growth opportunities and areas that your company is doing well.

  • If you want to foster more positive leadership skills in yourself, check out this list of Twelve Habits of Exceptional Leaders from Forbes, which identifies traits of good leaders.

  • Finally, if you feel like you’re already stuck in a toxic leadership loop, Contact Us to see how we can help you affect change within your company to improve morale, productivity, and profits!