Working for a Younger Boss

Younger employees, including Millennials and even Gen Z “Zoomers,” increasingly find themselves in supervisory positions. When a young executive must manage an older colleague, tension can ensue. The more seasoned worker may harbor resentment, while the younger boss may feel insecure.  The relationship, labeled by sociologists as “status incongruence,” is understandable: it appears to go against the traditional norm of seniority.

Both boss and reporting employee must take responsibility for preserving the peace. Both parties may need to harness their egos and “get over it.” Both need to resist stereotyping and focus on being productive. Human Resources can be a facilitator, particularly if either employee seeks their support. Here are some constructive suggestions a tactful HR manager might offer the seasoned subordinate:

Low angle of cheerful elegant women are looking at each other with smile. Older lady is sitting at table and holding folder while her young boss is standing with documents near desk in office

Teaching an old dog new tricks

  • Assess the age disparity head on and acknowledge the elephant in the room.  At the same time, don’t fixate. The goal is to move beyond the age gap, as a fellow team member since you do not want it to become an awkward taboo. (Nevertheless, you might tone down age-centric comments, like too much focus on grandchildren.)
  • Emphasize your experience – but never be condescending. It is a delicate balancing act, between appearing as a patronizing know-it-all, and coming across as a solid pillar who brings knowledge of office interactions, a network of contacts, and even a dash of political savvy.
  • Embrace changes positively. Make sure the boss knows you are willing and ready to adapt. Regard this new role as an opportunity to learn new skills and update your capabilities, mastering today’s prerequisites like social media, Slack or Excel. Learn to be comfortable with texting and instant messaging. Whether or not it is company protocol, it is worthwhile to become familiar with GoTo Meeting, Cisco Webex, Team Viewer, or Google Hangouts. They are simple capabilities and demonstrate your flexibility.
  • Modify your communication style. You may miss personal, face-to-face meetings, but the reality is that younger workers prefer shorter, fast-paced connectivity. Meanwhile present your ideas patiently and methodically, as needed, and let them speak for themselves.
  • Be a collaborator, not a mentor – unless the boss invites you to. In any case, never act like a parent!
  • Be sociable with your boss and other colleagues at casual events and try to find common ground. You may never be best buddies, but a friendly rapport can smooth the path. Remember, the boss has power, and can send promotions and desirable assignments your way.
  • This above all: be authentic. Or as Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true.” Act your age in terms of clothes, mannerism, or slang. You don’t want to look ridiculous, by struggling to seem “cool”.

Advice for the young supervisor

On the flipside, HR can also support a young supervisor who may be secretly intimidated by the newly vested authority, and eager to earn respect. The more experienced employee may be privately suffering imposter syndrome, the fear of being exposed as fraudulent, dependent on artificial authority.

Some of these pointers can improve morale for dealing with age disparities. Encourage younger supervisors to:

  • Help their older team members learn new skills.
  • Parlay their longer-term experience in projects.
  • Reorganize social events to be more inclusive of all ages.
  • Introduce a voluntary mentorship program.
  • Admit limitations.
  • Project confidence, not arrogance
  • Implement change gradually and systematically.
  • Be liberal with sincere praise and recognition.
  • Work alongside team members
  • Be ready with a quick response if anyone questions their age/suitability.

Respect is a great leveler

Management and HR can only go so far in promoting cross-generational harmony from on high.  In the end, adult relationships must run their own course, developing naturally.

In the right setting, however, the association between a younger supervisor and an older report can become a fruitful one.  Some new rules may need to be formulated and some outdated attitudes refreshed. If both sides can learn to be open to the rewards, there is room for growth and a mutual exchange of strengths.

We welcome the opportunity to put our construction accounting expertise to work for you. To learn more about how our firm can help advance your success, don’t hesitate to contact Kathy Corcoran at (302) 254-8240.


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