I am the oldest in my company and I am all of 39 years. Though I am the envy of a lot of my friends and colleagues, I must confess that working with a young employee is easy. On the contrary,  heading a team of people where you are the youngest, is one of the greatest challenges of today’s times.

While it is true that older employees bring in experience and security, one can’t ignore the big glaring gap and disconnect in terms of technology, communication and changing business norms initiated by the young generation of professionals. The trouble starts when the older employee finds himself reporting to a boss who probably entered kindergarten when he graduated college. I see a lot of young bosses intimidated by the age of their juniors, who are actually elder to them. This disconnect is evident in the inhibited communication and consequential lowered results in performance in a team where the elders are led by younger bosses.

How does one then span the chasm that bares open the cultural protocol of ‘obey your elders’ and ‘experience is important for success? How does the boss establish his/her position of earned power without offending the seniority of those who have been around longer than him/her? How does one handle errors on part of those with experience without humiliating them for being reprimanded by a boss who is far younger? How does one empower and encourage those to whom one actually looks up to by sheer virtue of age?

For the young daring professional who steps up to stand above the toughened and experienced subordinate, leading him and the organisation where the futures of both are safe—consider these tips.

Review skills and knowledge regularly to address the gap

There has been a general acceptance that experience adds value in decision-making. However, with the current economy being so unpredictable, new and unforeseen developments occur almost everyday. Knowledge then gets priority over experience. Hence, the emphasis should be on constant upgradation of knowledge.

Encourage the elder subordinates to adorn their experience by keeping themselves abreast with technological developments and global viewpoints on business and social trends.

Sensitise the elders towards technology by educating them on how it would help them save time, minimise errors and connect them virtually making work easier. I see an inherent keenness on the part of the elder employees to learn new things so that they feel assimilated and get a sense of belonging. When your interest in filling them in with ‘what’s new’ is expressed, they speedily catch on.

Maintain courtesy in all interactions with the employee

Our culture lays a lot of emphasis on respect for the elders. Whether junior or senior, social protocol states, elders must be dealt with respect and courtesy. No matter what the flavour of the day, maintain a good demeanour towards the elders who work for you. Respect should be reciprocal. As much as they deserve to be respected you can only earn your respect by giving it to them first. Sometimes young bosses fear that respect shown may be misconstrued as being submissive. Giving respect does not mean giving in. Giving respect is also a part of being professional.

Elders take well to junior bosses when they are dealt with respect, because it gives them a hope of a promising future for their children. They feel that if you have made it so far and so big, so could their children.

Have an agreement on working style

An error on part of a very senior employee can create unwanted mis-emotion if handled by the young boss tactlessly. The elder subordinate feels a greater sense of shame for being reprimanded by someone younger than him, than for his actual folly.

The pressures in every industry are immense and so it becomes pressingly important to have mutually agreed upon working styles with your whole team, especially the elder subordinates. It is important to practice your poise and calm as well as be a tad stern whether times are rosy or distressed. Its all good when the going is great, but it is when the pressure mounts and the stakes are high that a tight ship needs to be run and at that time courtesy may need to edge towards being demanding.

Recognise and acknowledge that there will be discords and errors and at that moment you will have to rise to the occasion and step up acting out of your position as a senior. Establish clearly that even if the employees may be skeptical of your judgments, what you say and do, the decisions you make will be with regard to the highest interest to the organisation and careers of everyone involved. It must be made known that you have earned your stripes and that your words and vision be taken objectively with due respect to your seniority.

Do mention that you do not aim at being the sole visionary and hence encourage them to share their vision and ideas but, you will do what you think is in the best interest for all.

Do emphasise that even when you do disagree, it bears no indication towards the respect that you have for them.

It is important to establish the seniority and the demands your position carries before you, which might compel you to exercise superiority. So when a situation of being ‘bad cop’ does arrive, it does not put an older subordinate in a rife of confusion.

Handle ego and insecurities sensitively

The younger generation is arbitrarily believed as impulsive, on the contrary, older generation is perceived to bring the promise of stability and calm. It might be significant to establish superiority however ensure that the elders are appreciated and encouraged as much as the youngsters. It is a wrong notion that encouragement and appreciation should flow from the elders to the youngsters. In fact, it is most notable that encouragement should be equivalent. At work, don’t ignore the elders or deprive them of the pat on the back, a kind word to uplift them or plain empower them when needed.

In making an extra effort to compliment your seasoned subordinates, you would add more security and productivity towards their jobs. The high churn rate of youngsters and the speedy advances in technology causes a lot of insecurity in the minds of the older employees. They begin to doubt their ability to cope and that inhibition does not allow them to open up to learn.

When you begin to appreciate and acknowledge them where deserved, they become more receptive to learning. As a young boss when you begin to take interest in bridging the generation gap at work, your relationship with your own parents stands a chance to take a positive turn. I see parents of young bosses effortlessly keep up with the world and also have a bright and positive outlook towards life and work.

Establish seniority

An older employee who might be much junior in position might be easily tempted to dismiss a younger boss because our cultural upbringing has engrained the concept of ‘obey the elders’ in us to the point that might surmount our rationale. Establish in the start itself, with due respect, that you will consider all advise but will take a decision based on your view of the organisation. Make sure you convey that you have more access to a broader vision and wider frame of information. You will make decisions after evaluating everything from a holistic angle.

When explained logically and when an agreement is established, the taboo of the disobedient ‘youngster’—the young boss, is broken.

Older people at work need to be handled with care. They come with their own set of issues and insecurities. A steep career climb might be a huge challenge for a younger boss to maintain. However, the changing face of leadership has prolific advantages as well. The era of the elders being in power has ended. Boundaries of distance, space and age have been dissolved. Some barriers still exist in terms of non-optimum communication and misunderstood professional concepts. When these are handled with tact, the young boss becomes a beneficiary of both the worlds—the stability and assurance of the old, and the funk and adventure of the new.


This was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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