How do I deal with an older staff member who has been working longer than I have in the organisation?

My colleague thinks that she knows better than me. She is required to report to me on a weekly basis.

However, she has been undermining my  authority in front of my other colleagues. I’m not sure what to do. Help!

– Junior SupervisorDear Junior Supervisor,

It is very common today to find employees from different generations working together and it is common to see a few challenges arise as a result.

However, this is definitely something very manageable once you understand what needs to be done.

An example of this is, as you mentioned, is an older employee (baby boomer of Gen X) reporting to a younger boss (Gen X or Y).

There are a few strategies you could try to make this relationship work once you understand how the different generations work and the expectations that they have.

There are eight fundamental Emotional Drivers and Motivators.

Each of these is based on a human psycho-emotional need developed through environmental factors such as family, culture and stage in life.

While each of these drivers is present in each individual, they do not have equal importance. They are also achieved in different ways by different individuals in different environments.

Every individual has a different order of importance for these eight drivers.

We are constantly filling these as emotional gratifications; sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in neutral ways, and sometimes even in negative ways.

But we are constantly filling them. These drivers can also be cultivated either positively or negatively by our environment, our culture, our parents, our teachers, and our peers.

By understanding your colleague’s primary emotional drivers, you will know their ultimate motivations.

When you ask them if they want more money, while they may say yes, it is not the money they want but what they believe money can buy, whether it be security, significance, or achievement, which will reveal foundational drivers that can help you identify how to fulfill and motivate yourself and others at deeper levels.These are the eight Emotional Drivers that cause everyone to do what they do:

Belonging/Love Connection from being with others, or connection with self.

Control/Security Greater ability to maintain security in our lives.

Diversity Having variety, excitement.

Recognition/Significance Acknowledgments of our achievements, being noticed.

Achievement The need to make progress and finish things  i.e. completion.

Challenge/Growth Learning and growing.

Excellence Self-satisfaction and pride in the things we do.

Contribution The need to contribute to others.

Also give the following a shot to have better relationships and understanding with your older colleagues:

1. Get to know them better

You cannot gain respect from your older employees by simply commanding it or expecting it. Instead, you should make it clear that you want to get to know them better, as individuals, recognising their individual strengths and work habits rather than labelling them by generation or other characteristics.

Discuss real and perceived differences in approach and perspective, and leverage on what they can bring to the table – one generation’s skill set is not necessarily more important than another generations. 

Start by being respectful, curious and open-minded by finding out how they came to be in this job, what excites them and how they like to be managed – get to know them more intimately and show genuine interest.

Forging a personal connection with your subordinates will help you understand them better – what motivates them, how they learn and communicate, and what matters most to them – and that will help you become a more effective leader (refer to the eight Emotional Drivers).

Try to set up “knowledge-sharing sessions” where everyone can get to know each other and express their ideas, thoughts and opinions. This is helpful for teams with different generations that possess different skill sets, as it gives everyone an opportunity to highlight their perspective. 

For example, a boomer could share why details are important to keep the team on track, while a millennial could talk through their creative processes to get the collective group thinking more out of the box.

By creating opportunities for teams to come together, swap knowledge and get on the same page, team members not only gain more mutual understanding and respect, they also recognise their manager appreciates what each individual brings to the table and wants to learn from them all.

No matter his or her age, every person learns differently. So at the end of the day, forget what you have heard or experienced and get to know your employees individually.

2. Make changes when necessary, but respect tradition

Many young people (like you) come into an organisation looking to make a change – which is good.

However, when managing someone older than you, it is important to understand how and why they are doing things a certain way before you change it.

While “that’s how we’ve always done it” should NEVER be used as an excuse, sometimes it’s always been done that way for reasons only an old-timer would know.

Older employees may sometimes perceive that you are “shaking things up for the sake of it“. Make it clear that changes are important to overall business goals and take the time to explain the rationale behind it.

While younger generations don’t shy away from being wrong and tend to have a “fail fast” mindset that allows them to make mistakes and quickly recover as necessary, older team members with an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” type mindset are not necessarily averse to change; it just means they need to first fully understand getting on board, and YOU can make that difference in making them understand. 

3. Be supportive and collaborative

In a team dynamic where there is a significant age gap between manager and employee, sometimes it is natural that some competition arise.

The young leader may feel like they have to “outdo” their older employees to prove their competence, and this can cause insubordination and resentment from the latter. 

So make it a point to be the employee’s biggest supporter by going out of your way to make sure the older staff member knows that you are on their side and that you are personally invested in their success.

Only when an employee genuinely believes you are a partner in their success will the “competitiveness” subside.

One way to encourage support and collaboration is to ask your employees for help, especially when it comes to learning a skill they possess.

Sometimes we feel like asking for help creates a weakness in the relationship between manager and their staff, (but) it can actually help to build loyalty and trust to show vulnerability. It can be something as simple as “Can you show me how you produced that chart? I would like to learn that.”

4. Communicate frequently and transparently

Managers should not underestimate the importance of communicating and giving feedback in the way each team member responds to best.

Millennials are used to getting regular feedback from managers (even if it is shouting from your desk), whereas boomers would usually prefer for their manager to stop by their desk to thank them or to give any feedback.

Flexible managers who communicate regularly with their team member will have more productive, happy and loyal teams and it is important that you encourage this practice of open, honest communication across your team.

If everyone is transparent and open about expectations, goals and decisions, age becomes a non-factor. When you are making the right calls as a manager, and everyone can see it, even those who are older than you can see the ‘why’ behind what you ask them to do and what you expect from them.

5. Do you really know more than older employees?

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a manager (of any age) is to refuse to learn from your team.

In fact, your older employees are one of the best resources you can use to adapt to your new position. They have been with the company (not to mention in the industry) for several years – which means they are aware of what works and what doesn’t, they have seen almost every possible technical problem, and they know the company’s clientele better than most.

So learn from them.

Ask them if they have seen a particular problem before, and if so, how they solved it.

Ask for their opinion on new processes that you are thinking of implementing, or how they would suggest making the department more efficient.

Get their opinion by involving them. 

Most of the time, they have great ideas that they are more than willing to share.

They want to be part of the decision-making process, and they are eager to spread their knowledge.

Their lengthy duration at the company is usually a sign that they are invested in it and want to see it succeed.

So while it may seem like your older employee is undermining your authority in front of other team members, sometimes it is simply because they are lacking something an Emotional Driver, and by utilising some of the strategies above, you can make that difference in becoming a more effective leader. 

I hope this helps!

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