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Younger Boss/Older Worker

Just a few years ago, people from different generations were separated at work by rank and status. Older employees filled executive positions, the middle-aged were in midmanagement, and the youngest worked on the front lines—and because of the nature of work, people weren’t likely to rub elbows on a daily basis with those in other age groups.

Today, Baby Boomers, many of whom have delayed their retirement, often find themselves working for people young enough to be their grandchildren. A survey by Harris Interactive® on behalf of CareerBuilder.com finds that 69% of workers 55 and older report to younger bosses.

The older worker/younger boss configuration can create challenges. Different generations have unique perspectives on everything from workplace humor to communication style to work ethic. Baby Boomers may feel awkward taking direction from younger bosses—and younger bosses may feel awkward dishing it out. Since the generations define hard work and loyalty differently, teamwork can suffer. While Boomers tend to prefer face-to-face or even written communication, younger generations prefer text messages and IMs. The generations even hold different perspectives on what to wear to work.

Yet the mix of generations on a work team can give it a competitive edge. The variety of perspectives and approaches can:

  • Increase a team’s creativity
  • Make the group more responsive to a wide range of clientele
  • Contribute to broader-based decisions
  • Simply add an element of fun

As we emerge from recession, it’s more important than ever that all employees realize their full potential, contribute their best, and work well with the team.

The Titanium Rule
It’s human nature to treat people the way we want to be treated. Most of us, for example, want to be treated with respect, and so we believe we’re doing the right thing by treating others with respect. However, each generation has its own ideas about what respect looks and sounds like.

Jeanie, a manager who is typical of the Millennial Generation, or Generation Y, prefers efficient, streamlined communications that respect her time, or lack of it. She likes to communicate via text messages and IMs. Her employee, Robert, a Boomer, works most effectively when he is involved in designing and monitoring the group process. He wants friendly work relationships with his colleagues. He prefers to communicate face-to-face.

Robert and Jeanie will work together more successfully by following the Titanium Rule—Do unto others, keeping their preferences in mind. Rather than communicating in their own most natural style, they should ask themselves, “What expectations, attitudes, and behaviors does he or she bring to the workplace? How can those influence the way I communicate?”

What Robert and Jeanie Can Do
Both Robert and Jeanie need to recognize the value the other brings to the table. By understanding and accepting their differences, Robert and Jeanie can tap into each other’s strengths and work together to produce solid business results.

To bring out Robert’s best, Jeanie may need to adapt her style. Here are some steps she could consider:

  • Acknowledge his expertise. Identify Robert’s skill sets and strengths and be open to learning from him. Tap into his experience.
  • Consider giving Robert a bit more face time than might be natural for her. For most Baby Boomers, relationships and business results are intertwined. Get together for a cup of coffee and get input on whatever issues are at hand.
  • Give plenty of direction without micromanaging. Make certain Robert is clear on her goals and standards, and let him make his own decisions about how to reach them.
  • Link her messages to organizational vision and values. Robert may have been part of the group who formulated them, and the vision and values help him see where his contribution fits.

Here are some ways Robert can follow the Titanium Rule and work effectively with his younger boss:

  • Focus less on relationship and more on results. Avoid talking about his years of experience; instead, keep track of his accomplishments and keep Jeanie up to date on them.
  • Identify Jeanie’s strengths and respect her expertise. Be open to her ideas and approaches.
  • Refrain from behaviors that drive younger generations crazy: Avoid comparing Jeanie to his daughter or granddaughter. Don’t act like a know-it-all. Nip cynicism or sarcasm in the bud.
  • Learn the new technology. Ask Jeanie how she prefers to stay in touch. If she tends toward text messages and Robert doesn’t text, it’s time to learn. Check IMs and cell phone messages regularly.
  • Jump on training opportunities. Learn new software programs. Attend communication workshops. Keep his skills up to date.

What Organizations Can Do
Savvy companies with multigeneration workforces recognize that priorities, attitudes, work styles, and perspectives differ with each generation. They develop intentional strategies to build understanding so that generational differences don’t lead to frustration, conflict, and poor
morale. Creating a climate of respect is a critical foundation for bringing out the best in everyone.

Organizations that handle the generational mix especially well build upon shared values, attitudes, and behaviors while reaching out in ways that are appropriate to each generational group. They:

1. Know their company demographics—internally and externally.
They gather data about their current customers and target where they want to increase market share. They gather data and learn about their employees and consider how well their staff mirrors current and projected customers.

2. Are intentional about creating and responding to generational diversity.
They identify needed skill sets within the company and recruit new staff from across the generations. They seek out individuals from underrepresented generations for work teams, boards, and advisory groups.

3. Build on strengths.
The most effective mixed-generation work teams recognize the unique strengths of each individual. Successful companies find ways to bring out those strengths and help each individual develop his or her talents so they can reach their own potential and contribute in their own ways.

4. Offer options.
They recognize that people from a mix of generations have differing needs and preferences and design their human resources strategies to meet these varied employee needs. They offer a variety of benefits, flexible schedules, and an array of opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

5. Develop an understanding of, and appreciation for, generational differences and strengths.
They find ways to learn about their employees’ needs, perspectives, and interests—and share that learning across the organization. They structure opportunities for less experienced employees from each generation to learn from their more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues—and for older employees to learn from younger ones. Managers help people become more aware and accepting of generational differences. Rather than perpetuating generational stereotypes—“young people are rude, disrespectful, and ill-mannered,” “older workers are stuck in the past,”—managers gather their own data and draw upon current research. The facts show that young people today are generally positive, respectful, patriotic, and goal-oriented. Surveys of older workers find they are continuing to learn and contribute. If managers start the generations conversation and offer opportunities to learn about generational differences, employees stop judging one another and find the strengths in their differences. Creativity, productivity, and morale increase.

6. Train people to communicate effectively across generations.
Communication styles and levels of comfort with varied technologies differ from one generation to the next. Successful companies recognize those differences, employ an array of communication methods and teach employees how to reach out effectively to their colleagues and ensure that their communication approaches are inclusive and welcoming. They offer training that gives people a basic understanding of the communication style and preferences of each generation.

Reprinted from www.generationsatwork.com, the website of Claire Raines.

© 2013 Susan Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak.
Adapted from Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers in the Workforce, by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association.

Learn more about the topics discussed in this article with the following AMA seminars:
Communicating Up, Down and Across the Organization

Improving Your Managerial Effectiveness

About the Author(s)

Claire Raines is a nationally recognized expert on generational issues and the author of Connecting Generations. She is coauthor, with Ron Zemke and Bob Filipczak, of Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers in the Workforce (AMACOM, 2013).