The first time I encountered the term ‘Baby Boss,’ I cringed. I can’t remember the name of the women’s magazine now, but the article was directed at professionals who found themselves reporting to a much-younger new boss. It was well-written, but the tone made me wonder later if the author was the same person who wrote the Mean Girls script.
Baby Boss? Come on.
It’s not unusual for two or even three generations to be represented in today’s workplace. People are living longer and putting off retirement in favor of enjoying the independence that an income gives them: last year, CNBC ran a news story stating in 1996, only 46% of people aged 60 to 64 were working. In 2016, that number was over 56%, and it’s expected to reach 60% by 2026.
You’re no longer working with -or for- your peers all the time, so if that has been your experience until now, your perspective and approach to the job need to change.
When I started out in project management, I was so close in age to my team members that relating to them was easy. Then I was asked to orchestrate the 25th-anniversary issue of a major client’s magazine, and nearly half the people on my team were ten to 15 years older than me.
Don’t Do What I Did!
I’ll be honest- I formed some judgments about these team members and what it would be like working with them. I’ll share them now so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
- I’ll never be able to relate to them. I was only a few years out of university, so I didn’t see how I could relate to people who had children, grandchildren, and retirement accounts. The team performed well, but I still wish that I’d shown more of a personal interest in them. I would have understood them better and the communication would have been richer.
- I can’t ask them for help. If I was struggling to master a tool or concept, I didn’t want my older and more experienced teammates to know. I made mistakes that could have been avoided if I had sought their input.
- They don’t respect me because I’m too young. I was convinced that there was no way my older team members would respect me, and I let that assumption take control of my management style. The project stalled at several points because I was too intimidated to hold them accountable, even though I was supposed to be helping them succeed.
If you’ve been tasked with managing people who are older than you, maybe they will consider your age. Perhaps they’re uncomfortable at the thought of reporting to someone who reminds them of their son or daughter, particularly if they feel that they should have been named to manage the project instead.
There’s nothing you can do about that. What you CAN do is earn their respect by being great at your job. True professionals know that talent, ability, and quality of work have nothing to do with a number, and when they know that you’ve got what it takes to do the job, misconceptions will weaken and disappear. Here are some tips for making that happen.
Get to Know Them
Seeing you socialize exclusively with colleagues your own age can create a division between you and older team members. Make it clear that you are interested in knowing them too- as individuals instead of representatives of a different generation. They may not go to the same martini bar as you do or live on Instagram, but they have families, hobbies, and other things that you can talk to them about.
Value Their Experience
Maybe they have graying hair. Maybe they have kids in university. But their skill sets are just as valid as everyone else’s, and you need a variety of strengths to deliver a successful project.
Today, when I manage teams that represent different age groups, I structure project kick-off sessions in a way that encourages knowledge sharing. We sit around a table loaded with Starbucks and everyone takes a turn highlighting their perspective. It gets all of us on the same page and fosters an atmosphere of understanding and respect for one another’s experience and abilities.
Ask Them if They Would Like Additional Training in Any Area
Never assume that your 50-year-old graphic designer needs training in any ‘modern’ project-relevant areas, such as social media marketing. Although she may not have grown up with technology like millennials have, she may be as active on Facebook and Instagram as her children and could even be more tech-savvy than you are. Most stereotypes are way off-base and you risk insulting people by making unfair assumptions.
Instead, present the project expectations at the kick-off meeting and ask if anyone would like additional training. Some may take you up on the offer. Maybe all of them will. All the same, as you get to know each team member individually, you will become familiar with their workflow, see when they are struggling, and be there to offer support.
Think Twice Before Doing Things Differently
When you’re new to project management, you may be planning to make changes. While a new perspective can make a positive difference, it’s important to understand why the current system is in place.
Employees who have been with the agency longer can explain the reasons, which may be valid enough to keep the system going. But if you’re told, “We’ve always done it this way,” change may be warranted. Just make sure that you explain the rationale behind it so that you’re not perceived as shaking things up for the sake of it.
In teams where there is a considerable age difference between the project manager and some of the members, there’s always the chance that some competition can arise despite your best intentions. You may feel that you have to prove your competence by outdoing these older colleagues, but this approach can backfire.
Instead of trying to make everyone see that you deserve your position, be their biggest supporter. Make it obvious that you’re on their side and you want to help them succeed. There’s an old saying that goes along the lines of “It’s hard to hate someone who thinks you’re the greatest.”
Encourage collaboration by asking for help when you need it. When someone has skills that could help you do your job better, say something like, “The way you formatted that report would make my life so much easier. Can you show me how you did it?”
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, and it’s unlikely that the team will see you in that light. Whenever I’ve approached someone for assistance, it built trust between us and made the working relationship more productive.
Communicate in Meaningful Ways
Good communication is one of the cornerstones of a successful project. If you understand how your individual team members prefer to receive feedback, your words will have more value and meaning.
For example, millennials are accustomed to getting regular feedback from their supervisors and thrive on genuine praise. In contrast, earlier generations tend to perceive constant affirmation as gushing or insincere and prefer targeted compliments that specify how they excelled. (“Thanks for working through lunch to get those graphics to Sam before 3:00 p.m. That saved us a lot of time.”)
While this approach may appear to emphasize age differences in your team, delivering feedback in ways that each person likes to receive it will result in a loyal, happy, and productive group.
Use Technology to Make You a Better Manager
Managing team members of any age can be a challenge. As the project manager, you’re expected to maintain control, but you don’t want to be accused of micromanaging. Software like Toggl Plan will give you the best of both worlds.
Toggl Plan is a workforce management solution that allows you to effectively direct teams of all sizes. I manage creative projects, so I love its attractive interface and color-coded Gantt chart timelines, but any project manager will appreciate its drag-and-drop functionality and ability to:
- See how close their team is to completing a milestone.
- Monitor the progress of each team member to see if they are experiencing any difficulties.
One of my favorite Toggl Plan features is the checklist. Your team members check off each task or subtask as they complete it, allowing you to see at a glance who’s up to date and who is falling behind. This insight allows you to offer help when it’s needed instead of being perceived as a micromanager.
You were promoted to manager because you have the necessary skills and abilities, not because of your age. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of team members who have more industry experience than you do. If you demonstrate real leadership, support your team through mistakes, make training available when they need it, and acknowledge their successes, age will only be a number. And that’s the way it should be.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.