Preparing for Millennial Leadership in a Baby Boomer World

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By Genevieve Douglas

Dec. 1 — Younger workers moving up the ladder should be trained to supervise older workers, to maximize the value both generations bring to the table.

Human resources professionals should be prepared to coach and guide any manager, Edward Yost, HR business partner for the Society for Human Resource Management, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 30. Management skills come through “trial and error, working through failure” and other life experiences, whatever a person’s age, Yost said.

Younger workers are increasingly moving into management, as many companies stop relying on seniority-based systems to select employees for promotions and instead use merit-based systems that encourage young employees to compete for supervisory positions, Professor Florian Kunze told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail Nov. 30. Kunze is co-author of a study on the topic and teaches at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Additionally, the fast pace of technological innovation has prompted companies to appreciate younger employees, contributing to their promotions, the study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found.

Yost recommended that HR coach younger managers to come into their new roles with some humility, acknowledging that there may be employees who question their competency based on their fewer years of experience. These managers should also make an effort not to be quick to judge older employees as “outdated” or needing replacement, Yost said.

“They have historical knowledge of the organization, the clients and customers and relationships they have built both internally and externally that are invaluable,” Yost said. Overall, older workers can be a resource to younger management, he said.

Potential Effects on Performance, Morale

These supervisor-subordinate pairings have the potential to disrupt “classical career norms” in companies, which can cause negative emotions that lead to poor performance, Kunze said.

“Interestingly our research shows that these negative emotions throughout a company can be triggered by only a few extreme cases (i.e., a 25 year old manager leading a 60 year old subordinate)” and can eventually affect the whole company, he said.

Companies and managers should be more sensitive to the negative emotions that can result from age-inverse supervisor relationships, according to Kunze. “Companies should regularly assess the emotional states of their employees, for example through employee surveys,” especially if many emotionally challenging relationships exist, he said.

Companies should also invest in leadership training and coaching for incoming managers, Kunze recommended. Research shows that young managers can be particularly effective leaders in these situations if they create a professional distance with the older subordinates and provide autonomy to the older employees by setting clear targets and goals, he said.

Technology as the ‘Great Equalizer.’

Technology firms are the most likely employers to find themselves in this position, but the age dynamic should be on any HR department’s radar if it's in an organization in which younger supervisors are increasingly being promoted up the corporate ladder, Yost said.

The dynamic of millennials overtaking their baby boomer co-workers is likely to continue as people focus more on entrepreneurial ventures and startup companies, Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at employee engagement solutions provider HighGround, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 29. Millennials are primed to be their own bosses and start these organizations, she said.

Both managers and employees should approach the arrangement with empathy, understanding and openness to differing perspectives, Harris said. For example, where a young leader might feel overwhelmed, an older worker may feel underused. HR also should support this approach through effective communication practices, such as keeping communication channels open for all generations of workers and fostering an inclusive nature at the organization, she said.

Harris also advised that HR allow for flexibility in how work is accomplished among different generations of employees. Younger employees tend to want to work remotely and older ones tend to prefer being at the office, but technology becomes “the great equalizer,” she said.

Heightened Potential for Age Discrimination?

One potential legal pitfall HR may want to be sensitive to is allegations of age discrimination as a result of a younger manager overseeing an older employee, Yost said. If an employee feels he or she is being pushed out or not included in transitions at the organization and the person’s supervisor is 10 or 15 years younger, the employee may assume it’s because of age. A new supervisor can dispel some of this by being more transparent with communication with subordinates, Yost said.

Younger supervisors also need to understand that they have to adapt their management style to the baby boomer generation and the needs of those employees, Yost said. “It can’t be on the employee to just adjust to you.” As the business climate evolves, the chief executive officers, managers and workers needed to make a company successful will change as well, and HR needs to recognize this, he added.

According to Laurie McCann, senior attorney at AARP Litigation, “there are no inherent legal pitfalls when a younger manager supervises an older subordinate.” The key is for the younger boss to avoid treating the older subordinate differently than his or her younger colleagues, McCann told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail Nov. 30.

HR should ensure that older employees are granted the same opportunities for training and development and they are entitled to honest performance appraisals so they can continue to improve, she said. Overall, McCann said, “employees of all ages should be evaluated based on their ability to do the job.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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