Managing older staff can be a particularly daunting proposition when the older colleague is a professional in the same or a related field to the manager’s
Sooner or later managers whose career trajectory is on the rise face the prospect of managing staff who are much older and perhaps more experienced than they are. “He’s older than my Dad” or “She had already left uni the year I was born” are typical comparisons made by managers in this position. Managing older staff can be a particularly daunting proposition when the older colleague is a professional in the same or a related field to the manager’s and more anxiety-provoking still if the older, more experienced person is qualified in a field where a ‘discipline hierarchy’ exists; for example the former nurse, now manager of a health service, whose is accountable for services provided by doctors.
The challenges of managing older workers has been the focus of much attention and advice in recent years as older workers delay retirement due to superannuation savings losses and others simply choose to extend their working life due to the sense of fulfilment they derive from it. It is common too for an older worker to have climbed their own career ladder only to find him or herself selected for redundancy at an age where re-entry to the workplace at the same level is mostly unattainable.
Multi-generational workplaces can be enjoyable and fulfilling for everyone but they are also fertile ground for workplace conflict and performance shortfalls. So what makes the difference when older workers and a younger manager are part of the mix?
Managers with supervisory responsibilities involving older staff members must consider two perspectives. One, the needs of older workers and how to optimise their productivity and job satisfaction, has been the primary focus of attention, with an abundance of guidance available. Treat older workers as individuals – they aren’t all technology laggards (Bill Gates is a ‘baby boomer’); don’t assume they are physically less able – the evidence shows that they take fewer sick days (and have quieter weekends) than younger colleagues; and don’t assume that they are resistant to change – they have usually coped with far more change than younger colleagues. It also helps to remember that older workers are often discerning judges of management and leadership behaviour and intolerant of managers who do not ‘walk the talk’.
The other side of the ‘managing older workers’ coin has received far less attention – the manager’s own psychological response to the older worker. All interpersonal relations are coloured by people’s internal world of beliefs, personal values and habitual responses. For example the experiences of ‘feeling an immediate rapport’ with someone or ‘taking an instant dislike’ to a person often arise from our subconscious mind with its accumulated memories and stored experiences. When responding to invitations to justify their ‘instant dislike’ people will often comment that the person displays physical or behavioural characteristics which remind them of somebody else. Without conscious examination of this sort of ‘gut-feel’ response, managers risk prejudicing on-going relations with colleagues and direct reports by treating an unexamined gut-feel response as if it is a sound basis for developing a relationship at work.
In the case of a manager’s psychological response to an older worker, the ‘internal world’ effect requires particularly careful attention. What if, for example, interactions with the older worker evoke memories of prior relations with authority figures such as parents? The manager’s immediate response might be to defer to the older staff person as if she has ‘higher authority’ in this particular setting. For example, the younger manager with an engineering degree might recognise an older professional’s wisdom. At the same time he resents what he perceives to be ‘interference’ with his decisionmaking. In another example an older worker’s perceived gruff manner might elicit a rebellious response from the manager’s ‘inner teenager’. These examples illustrate the myriad ways in which resonances of family dynamics and prior experiences of intergenerational interactions play out in the workplace. How should managers deal with these challenges?
There are two complementary approaches and managers should assess their position and take remedial action if necessary in both areas. The first is for managers of older workers to develop competency in, and commit to, the practice of self management. Self management is a continuous process of examining your own subjective experience, with the assistance of a supportive colleague or external professional if necessary, for the purpose of better understanding your own reactions to others, the underlying influencing factors within yourself and making informed decisions about adjustments to your practice as a manager. For example, the manager experiencing the older staff member as ‘gruff’ might be enabled to develop a much stronger working relationship with him by acknowledging that her reaction had far less to do with the current situation than with her habitual reaction to authority figures. The engineering manager struggling to manage the ‘interfering’ veteran might recollect his own strivings to impress a parent or teacher with ‘A’ grade work.
The second aspect of managing older workers’ contributions optimally is to ensure adequate attention to the formalities of authority relationships. All too often, managers of older workers fail to provide a clear and comprehensive position description defining the scope of the person’s role and detailing their specific responsibilities and key accountabilities and how their performance will be measured. The operating assumption is often that the older worker ‘should’ know what to do.
The problem with this approach is that the older worker possibly does know what to do in his assigned role and possibly could undertake the manager’s role too. However, what is needed for effective workplace functioning is a clear set of boundaries defining the responsibilities and authority delegated to the worker and how these relate to the manager’s accountabilities. With this framework in place and agreed between staff member and manager, older workers are provided with a supportive framework within which to apply their considerable experience.
The delegation is incomplete however until the manager has also established and committed to on-going implementation of informal and formal feedback and performance management processes. Successful outcomes from this will hinge on the manager having paid adequate attention to the first side of our ‘managing older workers’ coin – the self management necessary to engage in two-way constructive feedback which optimises performance and creates a satisfying work environment for everyone whatever their age or work experience.
The continued participation of older, highly experienced staff in the workforce holds much potential for better organisational and business outcomes as well as benefits for society in general. It is part of every line manager’s responsibility to ensure that they play their part in ensuring that this potential is realised.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant, facilitator and management educator, specialising in organisational and leadership development, governance and performance improvement and team dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).
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