Working for a younger boss presents a unique set of challenges. It may seem strange to take direction from someone a few years your junior, since many of us unconsciously believe age and authority go together. But organizations are increasingly hiring younger workers to fill leadership roles in both the nonprofit and private sectors, and for the first time many professionals are trying to navigate the challenges that arise when you have a younger boss.
The good news is that it’s possible to work together without age being a divisive issue. Here’s how to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with a younger boss.
Showing respect when your boss is younger than you
It’s easy to assume a younger co-worker has less experience, but putting in the time isn’t all that it takes to be a good manager. Your supervisor likely earned the position because they have the right skill set for leadership in your field. Experience matters, but achievements, drive, interests, and career goals matter too.
Give your manager the same trust and respect you’d show a supervisor who was your age or older:
- Listen when they give instructions.
- Let them know you welcome any feedback they may have.
- Make an effort to show you're earning new responsibilities, and don’t assume you’ll be granted them automatically.
Keep in mind that your boss may feel intimidated by the prospect of supervising an older employee. They may worry that you know more than they do or that you’re waiting for them to make a mistake. There are simple ways to show you value their knowledge:
- Ask them for advice about problems you encounter.
- If they do make an error, be gracious and accommodating; resist any urges to gossip about them to co-workers or remind them what they did wrong.
Communicating ideas to your younger boss
Your years of work experience have given you wisdom, and this should absolutely be offered to your supervisor as a resource. Your insights could range from logistical information to methods for handling certain people or situations. If you understand your boss’s problems and can suggest solutions, you’ll quickly become an invaluable member of their team.
Be wary, however, of lecturing, bragging, or condescending to your manager. Instead, be sure to frame advice in terms of your own personal learning experience:
- Instead of saying “This isn’t the way we do things,” or “This won’t work for me,” try saying “I’ve never considered this method before,” or “That’s an innovative idea, and I’m excited to be on board. Do you mind if I share some concerns I have?” or “I see where you’re coming from. May I tell you my perspective?”
- Instead of saying “Here’s the right way to get the job done,” or “It’s always been this way,” try saying “In my experience, this has been most effective, but I’m open to new options,” or “This reminds me of a previous situation. Here’s what happened and what that experience taught me.”
Navigating different work techniques with a younger boss
Different generations grow up with different technology and communication methods. Your boss may prefer a mode of communication you’re not used to, such as texting or using a chat application like Slack.
It’s important to have a conversation about expectations in this area. How does your manager want to deliver important information, and how do they expect you to respond? Should you check your email or phone regularly? If a certain method simply doesn’t work for you (for instance, if your personal cell phone can’t access an application your manager wants to use or you're just not comfortable using your personal technology for work-related tasks) brainstorm some different methods and find a compromise.
As you adjust to new office technologies, ask questions about anything you don’t understand. Learning a new skill is tricky regardless of age, and as industries change and evolve, you and your manager will both be learning continually on the job.
Thriving as a team
You and your supervisor won’t see eye to eye on everything, but that’s true of any working partnership. It can help to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When your boss proposes an idea you’re tempted to reject, ask yourself “What’s the end goal? How will this support our shared mission?” Think of reasons their choices could have positive outcomes for the organization.
Viewing your relationship as a collaborative one, not a competitive one, may ease any insecurity you feel. The two of you are in different roles because you have different strengths, so take the time to think about your talents, and also consider where your boss excels.
Being older than your supervisor may take some getting used to, but if you’re both committed to the job and able to embrace change, the relationship can be a great one.
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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.