Q: I’m a new manager. What’s your advice for managing people with more experience than I have?
A: I get asked this question a lot by new managers. Unfortunately, there is no rule book out there with instructions for how to manage, motivate and mentor staff members with more years of experience than you have. I witness a lot of younger managers struggling in this situation and inevitably facing performance and engagement problems as a result.
As leaders we all want our employees to like us. But we also want to be respected. Unfortunately, many new managers are unable to strike the right balance, especially with employees who are significantly older and more experienced than they are. The natural order of things, in this case, seems at odds with the organizational structure.
An effective manager needs to build an environment that maximizes employee motivation and engagement. We all know this. Every manager wants to build a positive work environment for people to thrive in. But this is easier said than done. And the challenge is even more difficult when it comes to managing employees who are older than you since there can be an undercurrent of stress built naturally into the relationship.
As I think back to my early management roles, I faced this situation more than a few times. Here are some of the questions that ran through my mind at the time:
- How do I offer the right level of autonomy while still providing structure?
- How can I motivate a staff member who is older than me without being patronizing?
- How do I deliver feedback when I haven’t been doing this for as long as they have?
- How do I strike the right balance between deference and direction?
Here are some tips for managing people who have more experience than you:
Take competitiveness off the table: There is a natural tendency when you’re managing someone older than you, for a competitive vibe to manifest. In my experience that competitiveness can come from either party. As the younger manager we often feel some need to prove that we deserve our station. This can come out all wrong if we’re not careful. Similarly, as the older employee, we often feel the need to over-assert ourselves to make sure our value and experience isn’t forgotten. If left unchecked, that can spiral into subversive or insubordinate behavior.
My recommendation to younger managers is to make a point of being the senior employee’s biggest supporter. You need to go out of your way to make sure the staff member knows that you’re on their side – that you’re personally invested in their success. Only when an employee genuinely believes you’re a partner in their success will the competitiveness subside.
Let numbers be the judge: In this type of relationship it’s especially important to provide a clear and measurable mechanism for evaluating performance. Even the slightest whisper of emotional bias or subjective judgment can send the relationship in the wrong direction.
My recommendation is to build a scorecard for performance that makes it crystal clear how the employee is performing to the point where there can be no debate as to how things are going. Once both the manager and employee are comfortable with the fairness and objectivity in the measurement system, the relationship will become less strained.
Be deferential in front of the team: When I manage people with more years of experience than I have, I try to make a point of showing deference for their expertise in front of the team. I’m not talking about putting on an act either – you should never be disingenuous. I’m suggesting you go out of your way to communicate the respect you have for the person’s experience so they always feel valued. It goes without saying you should be treating all staff members with respect but I think it helps to go the extra mile with more experienced and older members of the team.
As a manager, this type of public demonstration costs you nothing and it can make a big difference in breaking down barriers and building a cooperative relationship between you and your senior staff members.
Strike a mutual mentorship bargain: One of the most important things you can offer as a manager – to any employee - is the opportunity to learn and develop. But all too often, coaching in the manager-employee relationship flows in only one direction. And in the case where you’re managing someone more experienced than you, the mentoring relationship – in either direction – can evaporate entirely.
In my experience, setting up a bi-directional mentoring agreement can be effective and fulfilling. Especially in relationships with more senior staff members. Rather than presume to be the one to do all the teaching, I like to set up regular sessions to share best practices and experiences, and provide value to each other. This type of mutual mentoring program can have a positive impact on your relationship with the more experienced staff member and can also accelerate your own learning and development.
Managing people is tough. And managing people with more experience that we have is even tougher. To navigate this scenario it’s important to stay focused on the most important things you can offer as a leader – purpose, autonomy, fairness, and the opportunity to learn. To make your relationships with older employees work – double down on these core principles.
I’d love to hear about your experiences managing people with more experience than you have. Share your stories in the comments section or send me you thoughts and questions.