As a new leader, you may be in the situation where you are put in charge of a team or project where some of the people are significantly older than you. As you progress and gain more experience, this is less likely to happen, but the chances are certainly higher when you gain your early leadership positions at a younger age.
I experienced a similar situation when I was 30 years old, being brought in as a consultant to lead a work stream for a large program. I was leading some people who were in their 50s, with far more industry experience.
The trap here is that you run around trying to be “the boss”, asserting your dominance over your new team in an attempt to ensure that they don’t speak up and make you look bad. This might work with graduates coming straight into the workforce, but I wouldn’t suggest trying this with more experienced workers.
When leading older workers, your communication style is key
Leading older workers can be awkward at first – you may notice some resistance at the start…I know I certainly did! In my experience, this was simply mild passive-aggressive behaviour. You know, being slow to return phone calls, not replying to emails, communicating outside of the normal reporting channels – that sort of thing.
I don’t blame them – for some older workers who have been in their industry a long time, they would be wondering who this young upstart is, trying to boss them around without much experience.
That is why the manner in which you communicate with these colleagues is so important. It needs to be based on respect, and you haven’t earned their respect…yet!
So how do you earn an older worker’s respect as a new leader?
There are three good ways to earn respect when you’re leading an older or more experienced team.
When leading older workers, ask for advice and take guidance
In short – don’t pretend you know everything. Some leaders always need to know everything, but that’s not going to work in this situation (or any, in my opinion!). Ask for advice about certain issues and use it when you make your decisions. Ensure that your older team members are able to provide input where it’s relevant and be sure that they understand you’re listening to them.
Don’t ignore them or *pretend* to listen. They will notice and this will hurt you. This is key – they need to feel as if their experience is being utilised effectively, and they often have a lot to bring to the table…if you will listen.
After all, they didn’t work for this many years only to be ignored by their young leader!
When leading older workers, don’t be afraid to be wrong, and admit it
Admitting fault for an incorrect decision or course of action is a great way to build trust. Always needing to be seen as correct is a recipe for failure and won’t get you very far.
This is particularly true for more experienced workers – it can make them feel good to be right, especially when the inexperienced young pup (you) was incorrect. Of course, if you’re incorrect all the time, then you’ve got bigger issues!
When leading older workers, be patient. This stuff takes time
As with any team leadership situation, it takes time to build rapport with your team and gain trust, so be patient. You’ll find that if you respect your older team’s experienced opinion and admit fault when it happens, this will go a long way in building trust.
After a while, your more experienced workers won’t feel the need to prove they know more than you, or feel threatened by your younger age – you’ll be working as a proper team in no time.