As the working population ages and your career takes off, you may be called upon to manage or lead a team of older tech pros who have far more experience than you do.
Stepping into the role can feel a bit awkward at first, but studies show that experienced tech workers bring a wealth of institutional know-how and critical thinking skills that enhance decision-making.
Since your success as a manager is inextricably entwined with the success of your direct reports, here are some ways to win the respect and loyalty of tech pros who are further along in their careers than you – and some mistakes you definitely want to avoid.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
When Konrad Stoick was just 23, he suddenly found himself managing two separate engineering/manufacturing groups comprised of people who were more than twice his age. What did he learn from his experience?
“I learned first and foremost that earning the respect and trust of your team takes time,” said Stoick, an electrical engineer who works as a project manager for a major medical device manufacturer.
“Don’t throw yourself at your team or start barking orders,” he added. “Get to know them as individuals and find out what motivates them on a personal level.”
Adjusting your style can make you a better manager and help you relate to older workers. For instance, you may prefer to text, but face-to-face conversations work much better in such situations. Setting boundaries and clear expectations up-front can minimize generational differences and prevent misunderstandings.
Be careful not to overcompensate for your lack of experience. Accept the fact that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, noted leadership coach Barry Zweibel. Figure out where you can add value and ease into the role.
Watch out for “unintentional ego clipping,” Zweibel added. In other words, don’t dismiss the older technology that senior staffers grew up with, and avoid foot-in-mouth statements about “young people being smarter.” Demonstrate respect by publicly acknowledging the strengths of your older workers and tapping into their institutional knowledge.
Ask for Advice
Before initiating widespread changes or criticism, make an effort to understand how the group’s work is organized and their pain points.
“It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help,” Zweibel noted. “It’s your employees’ job to teach you. Ask questions and give your teammates permission to educate you on the requirements.”
Older employees like it when you consult them, especially when it comes to making key decisions, because it makes them feel valued and relevant. Of course, you still need to be the final decision-maker, but you’re more likely to get buy-in if you give senior workers the opportunity to weigh in.
Plus, taking actions based on assumptions is a rookie mistake that can lead to bad decisions and damage your credibility with mature workers.
Share Knowledge and Context
Once you understand the challenges your team is facing, lobbying for extra resources or a time extension can strengthen your bond with your new reports. Putting “emotional deposits” into your team’s “bank account” by offering support makes it easier to raise the bar on performance or implement new ways of doing things.
If you happen to know some of the newest and most innovative tools, offer to share your expertise. Being open to learning from each other and not rushing to judgment about the capabilities of older tech workers creates mutual respect and trust.
Finally, veteran professionals don’t like being micromanaged. Worse, the “why” tends to get lost when you tell them what to do and how to do it, Stoick noted: “Provide context and a framework and let the team decide how to get there.”