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Young Bosses, Older Direct Reports


May-December work relationships can be awkward and complicated—but they don't have to be, writes Tammy Erickson

Posted on Across the Ages: March 26, 2008 12:50 PM

One of my early mentors used the word "approbation" frequently. I don't hear it much these days, but he spoke often of having "approbation" for colleagues, particularly young people whom he "had time for," whose views he valued enough to consider thoughtfully. The dictionary defines "approbation" as "an expression of warm approval" and emphasizes that it is usually used in official relationships.

Approbation is the key to forging a strong relationship between people of significantly different ages—those either reporting to someone who is significantly younger or managing someone significantly older. Over the years ahead, as the proportion of the workforce over age 50 increases, this relationship will become more and more prevalent.

Although these "May-December" work relationships are not always awkward, there can be a number of complications. If the older worker is stepping down from a leadership position or feels in competition with the younger boss, that's obviously tough. Boomers, in particular, tend to be (as a generation) fairly competitive. They often appear to have a harder time ceding leadership than those from other generations do. And, as I've discussed before, if two individuals are from different generations, it's always easy to misinterpret the other's actions based on different generational perceptions.

What can an older executive do to ease such a transition and work effectively with a younger boss? Here are two key tips:

1. Figure out how the other likes to communicate and do your best to adapt. Keep in mind that the younger the employee (in general) the more frequently he/she is accustomed to interacting. Older workers therefore should not interpret frequent messages from the younger boss as a sign that he/she doesn't trust the older worker, but rather just as a difference in communication style and habit. Similarly, workers of different ages may use different approaches for communicating—older workers may find that the younger boss uses much less face-to-face communication than an older boss would have. Again, don't interpret these differences as personal—it's a generational difference.

2. Go out of your way to signal that you recognize and respect what the younger person brings to the party. Our research shows that lack of respect and a patronizing attitude are the two most annoying and destructive (and unfortunately common) behaviors when older workers interact with younger bosses. While the older worker may well have more experience in the specific industry or function than the younger boss, the younger boss may have some new perspectives that will improve the way things have "always" been done. Be open to learning new tricks and, most importantly, bring a spirit of approbation—warm approval—to the dialogue.

Younger executives who are put in the position of managing executives who are perhaps their parents' age can also feel awkward. In general, I find that Gen Y's (those under 28) tend to like Boomers (those over 44)—and usually work well together. There's often a bit more tension with some Gen X'ers—in some cases, they resent the Boomers, whom they perceive as having grabbed a disproportionate share of the opportunities over the past decade. Regardless of the generation, here are some tips for younger managers:

1. Ask lots of questions. The new boss needs to avoid coming in with preconceived notions. It's critically important to ask lots of questions, holding off on offering your own option until you've listened carefully to the views of those in your new group.

2. Go out of your way to signal that you recognize and respect the positive elements of "the way it has been done so far." Avoid implying that the old way has no value. It may need to change—but it's worth understanding why intelligent people have made the choices they have in the past. Approach any change from the perspective that you will be adding to the strengths of the past, rather than repudiating the group's previous approaches.

In both cases, don't worry about "convincing" the other guy that you have the necessary skills and experience—demonstrate that you do. And, as you demonstrate your work strengths, develop the interpersonal relationship through a spirit of mutual approbation. Our research shows that many "across the ages" relationships work extremely well. It can work with any two people who approach the relationship with a spirit of mutual respect and shared learning.

Have any of you been in the position of managing people significantly older or reporting to someone significantly younger? How have you developed the relationships? What advice would you share?

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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