A client asks:
“I manage someone who has more experience than I do and I feel awkward about it. What do I do?”
We hear this question a lot, so you’re not alone. It really can feel awkward to manage people who have more experience, whether that’s in terms of tenure, experience, age, or specialized expertise. This line of difference can feel weird initially, but it doesn’t have to be hard on your relationship or results. Remember that your staff members want a smooth relationship with you. They want to feel respected and supported. They want to be successful and they want to be on a winning team. If you practice effective management well, differences in tenure, age, or expertise won’t matter as much as you think. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Remember: you have expertise, too.
Your combination of values, skills, and experience got you where you are now. Your staff person may have more tenure, experience, or specialized expertise than you in some ways, but that doesn’t diminish what you bring to the table.
Make sure you’re aligned on clear roles and 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 them. If that’s the case, focus on supporting, not guiding. Get aligned around big-picture goals so you can stay focused on what matters most—outcomes—while they use their experience to own their lane and get work done.
Acknowledge their experience/expertise and be secure in your authority.
Two things can be true: your staff can have more experience or expertise than you and your job is to be their manager. If you overcompensate to prove your authority or seem too insecure to do your job, your staff can’t count on you. It’s okay to say, “You know way more than I do about immigration law so I’ll lean on your expertise for strategy decisions—my job is to support you to do your job and make sure our team works well together so we can meet our goals.”
Address problems if they arise.
If your staff member resists your authority or undermines your decisions, address that the same way you would any other performance or interpersonal issue—by giving feedback and seeking perspective. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed you seem reluctant to take on assignments I give you. What’s going on?”
Double down on relationship-building.
While respect can be earned through expertise, age, or experience, it’s better cultivated through relationship-building. Work to build strong working relationships with authenticity, trust, openness to talking about power and difference, and a sense of shared purpose.
Pay attention to your power.
Remember that the qualities that make great managers often have nothing to do with subject matter or technical expertise. Effective managers care about wielding their power responsibly because they recognize they have significant influence over their staff’s quality of life at work. They guide, support, and advocate. They cultivate healthy team dynamics and culture, give kind and direct feedback, and seek perspective.
And last, sometimes it just takes some time. Do your job well and you might find that six months from now, you’ve forgotten you even had this question.