How to Work with a Younger Boss

“Why does everyone hate me?” she sobbed in the passenger seat. We were on our way home from the holiday office party. The tears rolled down her face. It may seem unkind, but the unspoken answer was, “Because you are terrible.” She was a very young executive managing a pool of mid- and late-career medical transcriptionists. Something had gone wrong in their relationship early and kept getting worse. They saw her as a terrible boss—and a terrible person. Later, I wandered into this problem while editing international journalists by phone. My boss nipped it in the bud: “You know, he has 20 years more experience than you,” she said. “You should watch your tone with him.” She was right. Working for a younger boss can be an unexpected challenge.

Keeping our relationships positive, our workplace comfortable, and our businesses profitable means being honest with ourselves and each other. Here are a few tips.

Is it us?

First things first: Is it possible we harbor some resentment against someone younger having the bigger job, having the bigger paycheck, having the final say? Are we being ageist? Let’s start by checking our own egos. It can be harder than expected, but vital if we’re going to resolve whatever issue we’re experiencing with our younger boss.

  • Maybe we need to change our attitude toward our younger boss.
  • Maybe we really don’t want a younger person telling us what to do and it’s time for us to leave this job.
  • Or maybe it really is them and we need to find a workable solution together.

Scared dogs bite

Once we’ve assessed our part in the conflict with our younger boss, it’s time to empathize a little. Like most animals, people tend to lash out when they’re frightened. Maybe our young supervisor is overwhelmed, maybe she feels inadequate, maybe she’s trying to establish dominance, maybe this is how she thinks supervisors are supposed to act. Maybe she resents having someone more experienced—like us—looking over her shoulder.

  • Try asking about her challenges
  • Offer to help
  • Let her know you are happy to butt out as well
  • Support her like any other team member
  • Don’t freeze her out of office social situations, even if they are uncomfortable

Take care of yourself

Much as we may dislike admitting it, maybe we aren’t the hip, fit, go-getters we once were. To a very young team captain we may appear more an anchor than an oar. It’s time to sharpen our game a little and prove we’re not only rowing as fast as anyone else, but we’ve plied these waters before.

  • Learn new lingo. We don’t have to say “on fleek” or whatever the latest is, but it’s good to have the latest words and phrases in our lexicon
  • Hit the gym. A regular workout will help clear our mind, tone our body, and improve physical stamina.
  • Rekindle your fire. Anyone in any job will slowly cool over the years. It’s natural. Think back to when we first started. Can we stoke that flame again?

Speak up

Whether we’re still a little uncomfortable or we’ve reached a true impasse, it may be appropriate to get it out in the open. This can be scary, as we don’t know how our young supervisor might react.

  • Meet in private
  • Explain how we feel and give examples
  • Listen to what our young manager says

It’s entirely possible the workplace tension we’re experiencing is simply miscommunication. Young people have spent a lot of their life communicating with text messages and emojis rather than face to face. They may have a different style than we’re used to.

Embrace or leave with grace

Working for a younger boss gives us opportunities to learn new skills, new ways of looking at the world, and certainly new challenges. If we can embrace that, we’re on a course to a fun chapter in our career.

If we’d rather not embrace the youth movement, however, it may be time to turn the page on this job. Keep your networking channels open. Be active and proactive.

Have you experienced ageism in the workplace? Have you found success with being, or working with, a younger boss? Share your thoughts and tips for others in the comments below!

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