Managing People Older or More Experienced than You

A reader asks:

“I’ve recently started managing a staff member with two decades more experience than me. I feel awkward about being younger, and it makes me hesitant to give her feedback or be as directive with her as I probably need to. Is there some way of getting over that discomfort?”

 

We hear versions of this all the time from managers, so you’re not alone. It really can feel weird to be managing people who have been working longer than you – but it doesn’t need to. Here are some things to keep in mind to help overcome the awkwardness:

  • Your staff member will take her cues from you. If you act awkward or hesitant to do your job as her manager, she’ll feel awkward too. If you’re matter-of-fact about it, she’s much more likely to see it as a non-issue too. (After all, if you’ve ever been managed by someone insecure in her authority, you know how awful that can be – and how much it probably undermined your faith in her ability to manage well. Strive not to be that person!)
  • But don’t overcompensate in asserting your authority either. Exercising your authority just to prove that you have it actually undermines your authority. Truly secure managers will ask for input and solicit perspectives other than their own – and that will do far more to establish your ease in your position than making a point of authority for authority’s sake.
  • Fake it until it’s real. Even if you feel awkward inside, act the way you imagine you’d act if it you did feel comfortable. After a few months of this, you might find that it becomes natural.
  • Realize that you probably feel weirder about it than your staff member does. Yes, it’s probable that she’s noticed your comparative experience levels, but unless she’s very unusual, she’s not dwelling on it. She might feel a little odd at first, but if she’s good at her job, she wants to have a smooth relationship with you – because she wants to be successful in her own role. Support her in doing her job well, and she’s unlikely to mind how old you are.
  • Make sure you’re agreed on clear goals. If your staff member has been doing this work for years and you’re new to it, you might feel awkward about trying to guide her. Getting aligned around big-picture goals can allow you to stay focused on what matters most – outcomes – while giving her room to use her experience to get the work done.
  • If your staff member is bristling at or resisting your authority, address that the same way you would any other performance issue. Don’t excuse it on grounds of the age/experience difference. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed you seem reluctant to take on assignments I give you. What’s going on?” Or, “I appreciate hearing your input, but ultimately I do want you to tackle it this project the way we talked about, and to give me the opportunity to weigh in before you make significant changes to plans we’ve finalized.”

And last, sometimes it just takes some time. Do your job well, fake it ‘til you make it, and you might find that six months from now, you’re barely thinking about the age difference.