Karin’s Leadership Articles

How to Be Manager When Your Employees Are Older Than You

by | Oct 3, 2014 | By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning |

Pleased to welcome Scott Huntington with a guest post.

Good news: You have been hired for a leadership or managerial position. Awkward news: You’re younger than the employees you’ll be managing.

Discovering that you’re younger than your new employees is neither good news nor bad news. However, it has been known to make young managers uncomfortable or nervous. You may find yourself worrying about the challenges ahead. Will older employees respect you? How can you effectively manage employees with far greater work and life experience? What if they don’t like the changes you make?

Luckily, managing older employees isn’t as mysterious or unattainable as you may think. Start by incorporating the following tips. They’ll put you on the path to successful leadership.

Be Humble

As stated, your older employees have a lot of professional experience. Acknowledging the value of their experiences, knowledge, skills and insight will help you develop a positive relationship with your employees. People like to feel valued. Older employees will react far better to a younger leader if it’s clear that you won’t dismiss their insight.

Speaking of insight, good leaders makes use of their employees’ strengths. Don’t just give lip service to valuing their experience, show that you trust them to help you make your company or service the best it can be. Listen to your employees, allow constructive criticism and encourage collaboration.

Be Transparent

The question you always want to answer is, “Why?” In fact, you want to answer that question before it is ever asked.

Transparency inspires confidence. If older employees understand why you are making a change and why it will benefit them, they are more likely to give their support. “Because I said so” doesn’t work on children, and it certainly won’t work on older employees.

I got a job right out of college at a small startup. I quickly gained a few years of management experience which helped me land my next job at Bortek Industries. At the startup, everyone was my age, but at Bortek, I was one of the youngest. I knew that my team wasn’t going to trust me unless I explained my reasoning anytime I brought in a new idea. I also took their ideas into consideration so I didn’t seem like a know-it-all. Transparency was key to my success.

Be Attentive

You can’t play one-size-fits-all with your employees, regardless of age range. Every employee will have different needs, fears and desires (although those differences may be heightened by a generational gap).

Find out what benefits are most important to each employee. Know what makes an outside-of-work social time meaningful to them; know what affects or inspires them (home life, professional goals, etc.) Older employees may prefer social activities that promote conversation over loud bars or physical activities. They might prefer more vacation days to spend with grandchildren over small end-of-year bonuses, or they may prefer the exact opposite. You won’t know unless you make the effort to find out.

Be Encouraging

Don’t believe the lie that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The ability to learn a new skill has far more to do with opportunity and willingness than it has to do with age.

Don’t write older employees off as outdated, incapable of change or technologically incompetent. Instead, encourage them to learn new programs, products and skills. Just be aware that it might take them longer than an employee of your own generation. Be patient, be positive and be willing to adapt training to their fears or needs.

Be Assertive

When leading employees who are older than you, the biggest hurdle is often a preoccupation with age. Most of the above traits – humility, transparency, attentiveness and encouragement – are hallmarks of a good leader. They are useful when managing older employees because they are the foundation for managing any employee.

Many leaders shy away from reprimanding, disciplining or disagreeing with employees who are older than they are. They believe that they won’t be respected or worry that they’re too young to chasten older employees. Unfortunately their beliefs and fears become self-fulfilling prophecies that damage their authority and prevent them from leading effectively. If an older employee fails to meet a deadline, publicly disrespects you or otherwise acts out of line, forget their age and focus instead on the problem at hand. Deal with them privately, respectfully and firmly, just as you would any other employee.

Awareness of generational differences will certainly help you manage older employees as a young leader. However, awareness and implementation of fundamental leadership skills will help you far more. A good leader will earn respect regardless of age difference, so strive first and foremost to be a good leader.

Scott Huntington is a career specialist from Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington or check out his blog, blogspike.com.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Steve Borek

    As yesterday was my birthday, thanks for reminding me I’m older! ;-p

    I think too much emphasis is placed on generations. Ya, each has their nuances and quirks. In the end, they’re people with feelings. People with values. People with dreams.

    Understand what’s important to your followers, regardless of their age.

    p.s. The library has nada on persona mapping.

    • Karin Hurt

      Steve, Happy Birthday. Thanks for your insights. P.S.S. sounds like the world needs an expert on persona mapping. Just sayiing … stay tuned.

  2. Bill

    Great insight, Karin

    I wrote my thesis in graduate school on generational differences in the workplace and one of the most surprising stats I discovered was the disconnect between Boomers and Millennials One study showed 51% of these two groups had little or no interaction during working hours. These are definite challenges for younger leaders.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bill, WOW… that’s an amazing and disappointing statistic. We must change that.

  3. Martin Webster

    Hello Scott,

    Some very good tips. But, they apply whatever the age of a team member. I think my first direct report had forty years on me. It wasn’t an issue. Thirty years on it’s still not a problem. I respect and value people regardless of their age or job. As Steve Borek rightly says, everyone is unique and we need to deal with everyone differently.

    As ever,

    • Karin Hurt

      Martin, I so agree. People are people and we all want to be treated with deep respect, heard, and challeged. When Scott reached out to me with this idea, the timing was so great… because so many of my students were struggling with this. I think it just feels a bit more intimidating when your team is older than you.

  4. Bruce Harpham

    I read this part with interest: “Know what makes an outside-of-work social time meaningful to them; know what affects or inspires them (home life, professional goals, etc.)”

    What are some ways to learn these details? I sometimes pick up insights by asking about people’s weekends (that’s how I share that I’m a Shakespeare fan, for example).

    • Karin Hurt

      Bruce, Excellent idea. thanks so much for sharing.

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