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Diapers to Dentures: Who Is Managing Who?

by Robin Throckmorton, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Once upon a time, you would only see older workers managing the younger workers – NOT anymore! And boy is this creating tension in the workplace. Since the publication of our book, Bridging the Generation Gap, Linda and I continue to receive calls from publications and organizations asking “How can we get the younger boss of an older worker relationship to happen in harmony?” As I tell my two children, it takes two to tango and in this case it will take two to make this relationship work.

The very first step towards making the younger boss/older worker relationship work is to accept the situation for what it is and stop kicking and screaming! The younger boss is the boss and wouldn’t be the boss if he or she were not qualified – diapers or no diapers. At the same time, a boss is only as strong as his or her direct reports. The younger boss needs to respect the older worker for the years of experience and expertise that he/she brings to the table, which will help to make the team shine – dentures or no dentures. If both individuals can accept that they each have something unique to bring to the table, then one big hurdle has been overcome.

A second hurdle that must be overcome is overall RESPECT!!! Too often in any situation, the young make the old feel “ooold” and the old make the young feel like a kid out of his sandbox. There is no place for this in the workplace. Younger workers may want a sense of family but they are not looking for parents. In fact, the younger generations call these hovering people “pseudo parents”  or “helicopter parents.” Younger workers, including younger bosses, don’t want older workers to take them under their wing and treat them like kids and don’t want jokes or comments that make them feel like the kid still in “diapers.” Likewise, the older workers want to be treated with respect as well. They want respect for their years of experience and want younger workers to know that their brains do still work. Older workers want to share their experiences so you don’t have to recreate the wheel. Skip the comments that make them feel like they are so old they need to be put out to pasture.

Another key issue that must be overcome for the younger boss/older worker relationship to work is communication. Yes, we actually all do speak the same language; it’s just the method, time, and frequency of communication can vary a great deal by generation. Therefore, it is important to clarify the communication styles of the younger boss and older worker up front to ensure both individuals are on the same page. For example, younger generations tend to use instant messaging and email much more often, whereas the older generations typically like face to face or phone conversations. The older generations are more likely to want collaboration on issues, which requires more communication versus the younger generations who take a more hands off independent approach requiring less communication or simple email updates. Finally, both generations need to agree on how to handle communications after hours. You may find a very different opinion between the generations on this issue but knowing the opinions will avoid any conflict.

Finally, as a Gen Xer, I myself have managed older workers and observed my peers do the same. There are some very basic steps you can take that will make you a more successful younger boss and become seen as partner rather than the kid in “diapers.” To begin with, your first impression is absolutely critical. You need to dress the part of a leader – dress to impress but not over impress. This means you should be dressed one step up from everyone else you supervise. Come prepared with a plan but include your team in the plan either by meeting with them as a group or connecting one on one depending on your comfort level or the group dynamics. Next, set very clear expectations with each of your direct reports so you both are on the same page working toward the same goals. This upfront communication also helps avoid conflicts down the road. Finally, don’t make the older generations conform to you; respect them for the way they are. Their generational differences will reveal unique perspectives and ideas that you might not think of.

Having worked often with older workers and through our research for Bridging the Generation Gap, we learned many ideas to help the older worker as well. The first and toughest step will be to let the younger boss manage, even if it is different than the way you’d do it. Second, turn on those listening skills and really listen to what the younger boss has to say. Generally, younger workers are very connected to the mission and vision of the company, which we can all resonate with; you’ll be able to connect too – I promise. Be prepared for a very hands off management style and identify ways that will help you work with this type of style. For example, try to use email a little more. Finally, get to know the younger generation. Linda Gravett actually said that diving into some of the periodicals, websites, and TV shows that the younger generations like has helped her to understand and relate to us better.

Remember, whether you are the younger boss or the older worker, you both are working for the same company with the same vision, mission and goals. You are serving the same customers. You may each go about doing things a little differently but your end results will be the same. The key is by working together you can be more successful whether or not you are from the diaper or denture generation.

Robin Throckmorton, MA, SPHR, a Senior Human Resources Management Consultant is President of Strategic Human Resources, Inc. (www.strategicHRinc.com). If you have any questions or comments about this article, you may contact Robin at Robin@strategicHRinc.com.