How to Manage Someone Older Than You

February 5, 2018

There are five steps you should take if you are managing an employee who is older than you.

In the not-so-distant past, experience was the most important factor to getting promoted. To move up, you had to put in the years, which meant the vast majority of managers were older than their employees.

Experience still matters. But, in a world where a 33-year-old (Mark Zuckerberg) runs one of the biggest companies in the world and change happens fast, the old rules often don’t apply.

One of the many consequences of that? A jumbling of the age hierarchy, which means a lot of people are now managing workers that are older – and, in some cases, much older – than they are.

That’s a strange feeling, to be managing someone who is older and more experienced than you. How should you handle it?

5 Tips for Managing Someone Older Than You

In her LinkedIn Learning course Communication Tips, Kelley School of Business Senior Lecturer Tatiana Kolovou gave these five pieces of advice for managing employees older than you. They are:

    1. Don’t try to come in and dominant them.

The worst thing you can do is come in and tell everyone what to do. This doesn’t work with anyone, but it definitely doesn’t work when dealing with employees who are older and have more experience than you.

Instead, Kolovou suggests scheduling meetings with all your direct reports to uncover their skills, their goals, their preferred way to communicate and what motivates them. Then, you can structure the team around their strengths, as opposed to trying to command them into compliance.

    2. Be inclusive.

This means two things specifically in this instance.

First off, include all workers when making decisions. Older workers do have more experience than you ­and likely a different viewpoint than you – leverage that by asking for their input when deciding. Granted, you still need to be the one making the decision and that might not always be exactly what they want, but having an open dialogue makes a big difference.

Secondarily, be inclusive when it comes to giving credit. If a project an employee is working on goes well, praise them. Again, this is a best practice always, but particularly so when managing a more experienced employee.

    3. Avoid pointing out age differences.

Yes, you are younger than the employee you manage, a fact both of you are likely aware of. But, Kolovou suggests you avoid pointing that out.

Obviously, this means not explicitly mentioning the age difference. But this can happen inadvertently too. For example, if they say they still get the newspaper, don't say “my dad does that too” or “that seems so old school.” 

What if the employee points out the age difference? Simply redirect the conversation somewhere else.

    4. Be credible.

This is the most important one on the list and also covers the most ground. It means:

  • Be decisive. Nothing will make you lose credibility faster than wavering on decisions or not standing behind the decisions you do make. You want to gather opinions before making a decision, but it's still up to you to make the decision and stand by it.
  • Limit talk about your social life. Older workers in particular are used to environments where social lives weren’t discussed as much in the office. Keep it professional, particularly to start.
  • Along those lines, don’t connect with your employees on social media (except for on LinkedIn). An embarrassing or unprofessional social media picture can undermine your credibility with your employees – particularly with employees who are older than you.
    5. Find a mentor.

Again, good advice no matter what, but particularly true when managing older employees.

The fact is managing someone who is much more experienced than you can be challenging. Make it easier on yourself – get a mentor you trust, who you can talk through issues with. This will help you handle the day-to-day challenges that’ll come up.

The takeaway

Most employees will likely have some reservations about being managed by someone younger than them.

The good news? In almost all cases, those reservations can be overcome. If you treat them with respect, keep it professional and act decisively, most older employees will come to respect you over time.

You don’t have to overdo it. Follow the advice above and you’ll be in good shape.

Want to learn more? Watch Kolovou's series, Communication Tips.

Other LinkedIn Learning courses you might be interested in are: