9 tips on how to manage people older than you

For young professionals delving into leadership roles, managing employees who are older than them can be an awkward situation. But while young managers may feel awkward about the age gap between them and their direct reports, the older employees often also feel awkward about the situation as well. That’s why learning to manage people who are older than you is an important leadership skill to develop.

The situation may feel awkward initially, but as long as both parties are respectful and the manager exercises good people management skills, it shouldn’t be a big deal in the long run. Explore some top tips below for how to approach managing employees who are older than you.

​​How to manage people older than you

Here are nine tips for being a better leader when managing people who are older than you.

1. Be confident

If you’re managing people older than you, there is likely going to be a bit of a preconceived notion that you’re less experienced, knowledgeable, or qualified than they are. To properly combat that, you want to project confidence and show that you feel secure in your skills and ability to lead.

It’s okay if you’re internally second-guessing yourself. Managing people who are older than you can feel awkward. However, you should do your best to outwardly appear calm and confident. If you start having doubts or feeling insecure, give yourself a little pep talk. Remember that you were chosen for this role because you are qualified and senior leadership believes in your abilities

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It’s also helpful to have a short list of your own accomplishments and qualifications that you can go over to regain your confidence or to field any questions from team members about your background. Older workers will generally have more years of work experience than you by virtue of having more years of life. Therefore, it’s typically better to highlight specific, measurable achievements rather than emphasizing years of experience when discussing your background and qualifications.

2. Foster mutual respect

No matter who you are managing, it’s important to be respectful. With a younger boss and older employees, both sides may feel a bit weird about the situation and may make some assumptions about the other party. Go into every interaction with a respectful tone and acknowledge the other person’s valuable experience and knowledge.

When managing older employees, put some extra thought into how you carry yourself during your early interactions. Younger employees tend to have a fairly casual work culture and speak fairly freely with management, but older employees may or may not respond positively to that. If young managers come off as too casual or informal, they may be perceived as less respectful. It can also emphasize the age difference. Take a respectful, but professional approach while you feel out the overall team culture.

3. Get to know your team

Dedicate some time during your first few weeks as a new manager to getting to know your team (or your new employee if there’s just one older worker that you’ve been newly assigned to manage). This should be an initial focus whenever you’re managing a new team or staff member, regardless of whether there is an age difference.

Set up one-on-one meetings to get to know each direct report individually and learn about their background and their work responsibilities. See what has been going well for them and what they may need support with. Find out if there was anything that their past manager did that was particularly helpful for them or if there’s anything that they may prefer to have done differently.

One particular focus should be on communication styles. Older workers may not be used to or comfortable with digital communications like Slack or Teams as much as younger employees. Some may prefer email over messaging while others may prefer to hop on Zoom or have you stop by their desk to discuss a project. Mismatched communication styles and preferences is one area where young managers and older employees may encounter problems, so getting this matter figured out early on is incredibly beneficial for both parties.

4. Consider generational differences

Different generations have different communication preferences as well as different attitudes and approaches towards work. Don’t expect every team member to cater to your approach fully. Instead, learn to tailor your approach to your audience.

Once you’ve gotten to know your new team, take some time to look over your notes from the initial team meetings and one-on-ones and consider how to adapt your leadership style to best meet the needs of your team. How can you best distribute information or updates to the team members? How can you make processes more efficient while working within your team’s comfort levels and abilities? Start devising a plan that will merge your personal leadership style and

5. Introduce changes slowly

If you’re stepping into a new role as a manager, either as a first-time manager or within a different company or department, you’ll naturally want to make some changes. You may want to adjust team processes and procedures to better fit your management style or reduce inefficiencies, but don’t move too quickly. Proper change management is important no matter what, but especially when managing older employees.

Ensure that you are providing clear communication and plenty of resources when making changes to existing processes. Think about how to best communicate changes, such as whether it should be down in writing, during a meeting, or both. If making changes that require different skills, such as digitizing processes that were previously done manually, ensure that you are providing plenty of training opportunities and exercising patience. If an employee of any age has been doing something a certain way, changing it suddenly will require an adjustment period.

6. Include older employees in decision-making

When practical and appropriate, solicit feedback from your team and include them in decisions. They have plenty of knowledge and experience to share. Older generations also have a stronger tendency to stay with one employer for longer periods, so they are often some of the best people to ask about what has and has not worked for the company in the past.

This is also a great way to continue to foster mutual respect. Showing that you value their opinion can help ward off the idea that the young manager must think they know it all and will be changing things up constantly without accepting input. Being transparent when you need their expertise or don’t have a ton of experience in a certain area can make you as a young manager can also help you appear more down-to-earth and go a long way in building a respectful working relationship with older employees. It’s always good to listen and learn from others, regardless of their job position.

7. Maintain authority

When managing people who are older than you, it can be a delicate balance to maintain authority while collaborating with and learning from older workers. It’s great to ask questions and obtain input on decisions, as older employees do often have a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. However, you also want to maintain your position as a leader so that they aren’t walking all over you.

Make sure that you’re developing strong working relationships with your employees while still enforcing boundaries and maintaining authority. This means that you should be asking for input and respectfully listening to employees, but it should be clear that you as a leader will have the final say on decisions. Encourage employees to participate and speak up, but don’t always defer to them.

8. Encourage work-life balance (But tread lightly)

Older generations often didn’t place as much emphasis on work-life balance as Gen Z and Millennials have. A good manager will always be checking the pulse of their team and encouraging proper work-life balance and extra rest when needed to prevent burnout. If you’re managing mostly older people, you may want to start nudging them to use their PTO and keeping tabs on whether team members are taking all of their breaks and leaving relatively on time.

The more nonstop work style that many older people have developed can lead to unhealthy burnout and also create some interpersonal issues within teams. If half of your team is made up of younger employees taking full advantage of your company’s scheduled breaks, flexible scheduling, and PTO offerings, while the other is made up of older employees who pride themselves on never taking a day off, there can be some resentment or the perception that certain employees lack work ethic. This isn’t what you want. You want everyone to equally enjoy any vacation time or work flexibility, prioritize their own well-being, and respect one another.

Be sure to make work-life balance a focus for the entire team and model good work-life balance yourself so that it doesn’t feel like you’re singling anyone out or implying that they need extra rest because they’re older. It should be about everyone on the team prioritizing wellness and being able to enjoy hobbies or time with their families.

9. Don’t overlook professional development

One thing that companies and younger managers sometimes do that may appear disrespectful to older employees is make assumptions regarding employees’ career development. Some older workers may prefer to keep their role as is while they wait to hit retirement age, but don’t assume that older workers don’t have an interest in learning new skills or taking the next step in their career path.

Talk about what they’re looking for in the next step of their career. It may be a promotion or may just be a professional interest that they’d like to explore or a new skill they want to learn. Effective managers facilitate ongoing professional development while personalizing growth plans to meet each employee’s goals and interests. These conversations are also a great way to get to know each team member better and learn how to lead them more effectively.