Young managers can cross age barrier with trust

Staff management a balance of respect and communication

By Karalyn Brown

Much of the talk around age discrimination centres on the experience of older people in the workforce. But what if it’s the other way?

What if you’re a highly capable younger manager all fired up for your first real management opportunity, only to face roadblocks because an older and more experienced team won’t take you seriously?

Are there credibility challenges a younger manager faces when stepping in to manage an older team? Or is “they don’t take me seriously because of my age” an easy label when everything else seems so hard?

Yes, it seems, people do make quick judgments.

Julie Trenbath, operations manager of regional NSW and ACT for recruitment firm Select Appointments, felt it deeply when managing people at age 19 at McDonald’s.

“I felt like I had to work hard to earn the respect of the team,” she says. “People would openly say, ‘oh, how old are you?’”

Geoffrey Christiansen, executive manager of Customer Development Claims in CTP for financial group Suncorp, held one-on-one meetings with his staff when he first stepped out to lead an experienced and mainly older team.

“I needed to build trust. But it’s hard to build trust when some people are old enough to be your parents,” he says.

“I had some rolling of the eyes, blank faces and raised eyebrows when I asked people for their ideas.”

Sonia Kakkalos, Australian practice manager of training and teamwork consultancy Team Results, experienced similar reluctance trying to introduce a new HR tool when she was a young HR Manager trying to influence an older “more blokey” workforce.

But is youth the issue?

Allan Parker, managing director of Peak Performance, a consultancy specialising in organisational change, training and negotiation skills, is wary about assumptions.

 He says people label reactions when they step out of their comfort zones and have unclear boundaries.

“We grapple for anything to produce stability,” he says.

“We look for a quick reason, and age represents a hook to hang this on.”

Parker stresses that younger managers need to separate their awareness of their age, or fear about being new, to understand that others will make assessments about them based on many variables.

“It’s the culture or the types of groups inside that culture,” he says. “There are also individuals for whom age is a filtering system. If they do filter the world with age as a filter, they will need to be managed. Then there’s the person who wanted the job …”

Elizabeth Chan, head of consulting for DDI, an international HR consultancy, believes new leaders struggle not because of perceptions around age, but because of the many pressures they are under as first-time managers.

“Their formal preparation for management may be completely new,” she says.

 “Overlay this with the challenges of multiple generations – Gen X, Gen Y, older employees. Then overlay this with a pretty significant shift -the paradigm shift from managing themselves to managing through others.”

Chan says research shows 33 per cent of leaders find the transition to the first level of leadership very difficult.

So what’s a younger manager supposed to do if they get a dismissive treatment?

Parker suggests some self-examination. “Ask yourself `is it my belief or experience, is it my perception, is it about my feelings’. Is it about the other person, is it about their specific behaviour, or part or all of these things?

“Most criticism will be in addition to age -so what other variables are in play? It could be the person with whom you are on this project has 10 years’ professional experience, and you have none.”

Trenbath learned not to make too many assumptions after she became a manager.

 “I reflected too much on myself. I thought, ‘gosh -how would I feel if I was 40 and I was being managed by some young whipper-snapper? But sometimes people just want to see how you can add something.”

She has advice for aspiring young managers: seek out mentors, respect people’s knowledge, treat people as individuals and look at ways to combine their experience and what you can bring to the table.

For managers working with teams suspecting them of playing out their ambition, focusing on something bigger may help.

Kakkalos says it’s important to understand the strategic goals of the business, and to steer discussions towards adding to the business.

“Don’t have your own agenda. Never let your own ego get in the way. Respect what the other party is in a position to bring and talk about it like a journey, adding to what people have done before.”

Christiansen quickly realised the raised eyebrows he was seeing were also about the past, rather than a simple reaction to his age or experience. From previous company mergers his team had seen it all before.

He sensed his team wanted both talk and action. “You win credibility by doing things that more credible managers would have the nous to do,” he says.

He also worked out who he needed to be influencing to effect change.

 “I picked a few people who got along well with other people and realised if I had them onside first, then others would follow.”

Christiansen cautions young managers against trying too hard to prove themselves within a short period.

“Don’t try to do everything yourself. Let people help. You are there to lead through others. You’ll win more respect this way.”

He’s also learnt when he needed to say “no” in a clear way.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap that you need to be liked by everyone and send mixed messages to the team. If you need to be direct, be direct,” he says.

“Don’t mask criticism or requests with compliments.”

Christiansen’s biggest lesson was to understand that not everybody in his team was as hungry as himself.

“Motivations can change with age,” he says. “Some of my older team members worked because they wanted to do a good job, not because they needed to get ahead. Once I realised this it was easier to move forward.”

The Weekend Australian

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