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Managing Peers and Older Generations

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

Part of being a manager is inevitably managing people that make you feel uncomfortable or vice versa. One example of this might be having to manage people who are significantly older than you are. Another challenge might be managing peers, close friends, or the co-workers you used to grab lunch with every day. Lindsey Pollak, author of Becoming the Boss, has some suggestions for handling these tough situations and being the best manager you can be.

Managing Those Who Are Older Than You

Because millennials are stepping into leadership positions sooner and older generations are staying in the work force longer, it’s inevitable that young managers will end up in charge of people who are significantly older than them. I’ve personally seen this in companies I’ve interned for and in lots of movies (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one that immediately comes to mind). From these same movies, I’ve noticed that this phenomena is generally portrayed as being difficult and unsuccessful, but that’s not how it has to be. Here are two easy things you can do to successfully manage those who are older than you:

Don’t Assume Age is an Issue

It’s natural as a manager to assume that anyone older than you has a problem with your age, but this isn’t the case. If no passive aggressive comments about your age or snickering sneers when you make an amateur mistake come from your older staff members, then it’s likely that they don’t mind that you’re younger. The key here is not assuming anything, and in the same vein, don’t assume that any older person at your company fits into a prescribed stereotype. Pollak says, “If you don’t want to be judged by your age, be careful not to judge your colleagues by theirs.” Your older staff members might be good with technology; they might have seen the latest episode of “The Bachelor.” Take the time to get to know your staff and they will likely appreciate the effort — and you as a manager — more.

Earn Respect by Showing Respect

It may seem simple, but one of the best ways to handle managing people who are older than you is to respect them. They may not have been promoted into the position you now fill, but it doesn’t mean they have valuable perspectives and suggestions. Ask for their opinion. Compliment their knowledge of the company, especially if they’ve been there since you were in diapers. Appreciate what they bring to the table and they are more likely to appreciate what you bring. The key is to make everyone — young or old — on your staff feel valued, because that’s when your employees will be happiest and most productive.

Managing Peers and Close Friends

Managing peers or close friends is a different challenge altogether, one you will likely encounter in some capacity. The first step is to recognize that whatever relationship you had with these peers/friends before has been changed by necessity. You can’t be their manager and retain the exact same relationship because it’s not authentic to your management position. Decisions are yours to make and you’re now held to a higher standard about what you say and do. You can’t participate in the office talk anymore, and you can’t be the drunkest one at the Christmas party. You have to be careful about going out with those who you manage, being cautious to keep work and life separate while understanding that complete separation will never be possible and boundaries are essential. You are accountable in a way your peers/friends aren’t.

One important thing to do in managing peers and friends is to be confident in the position. It can be tempting to say things like, “I don’t know why I got this job,” because it takes some of the separation away from you and your peers. But that separation is there for a reason, and you should own it. If you don’t, your peers and friends won’t respect or view you as a manager, and might not even acknowledge that things have changed. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the reasons why you were chosen for this management position, and don’t be afraid to say you think you were the right person for the job. It’s up to you to establish yourself as a leader among your peer group even if it’s awkward and difficult, but always do so with humility.

Understand that some people might be really upset that you were chosen for the position and they weren’t. The best way to handle that situation is to request a sit down at a coffee shop or another neutral location. The point of the meeting is to be open about the tension and discomfort and see if you can find some footing for your new relationship as manager and staff member. And if that doesn’t work, maybe it’s okay to let the friendship — if it ever was there — to go away and work on building a solely professional relationship.

I personally have managed my peers and friends as an RA both in the US and in Ireland, and from those experiences I know it’s tricky. Finding a balance between professionalism and wanting to be your weird and wacky self with your friends is hard but not impossible. I’ve found that it’s essential not to talk about your job as their RA (or manager) and the things happening with the hall (or company). No business secrets can be shared simply because they are your friends and they want to know. No advantages or preferential treatment can be given either. You might have to be more aware of the way you talk about other people — especially other people you manage — but it doesn’t mean you can’t be yourself. Balance is everything, even if it might take a while to find it.

Look out for part fourteen of this blog series, which will discuss how to give and receive effective feedback. Be sure to check out last week’s post about confronting conflict in your management position.

Sources: Becoming the Boss by Lindsey Pollak; find more information about Pollak here.