With Martin G. Moore

Episode #91

Respecting your elders: Should age matter?

We’re constantly receiving questions from listeners about leading when there is a significant age difference. And this can flow in both directions. 

In this episode, we look at what to do with an older person in your team who reports to you, and is difficult to manage. We also consider the case of working for an older leader who uses bullying, intimidation, and control as their primary means of achieving outcomes.

Either way, as a leader you are going to have to work out how to deal with these difficult scenarios: they are surprisingly common.

Sometimes, what we perceive as an age issue is actually something else and if, as leaders, we can strip aside the stereotypes and deal with the behaviours that challenge our effectiveness, it gives us much more control than just believing it’s “an age thing”.

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Episode #91 Respecting your elders: Should age matter?

We’re constantly receiving questions from listeners about leading when there is a significant age difference – and this can flow in both directions. The most common questions ask for advice about what to do with an older person in your team who reports to you and it’s difficult to manage, but we also hear cases where someone works for an older leader who uses bullying, intimidation, and control as their primary means of achieving outcomes. Either way, as a leader, you’re going to have to work out how to deal with these difficult scenarios because they are surprisingly common. Sometimes what we perceive as an age issue is actually something else. And if as leaders, we can strip aside the stereotypes and deal with the behaviours that challenge our effectiveness, it gives us much more control than the belief that it’s just an age thing. So we’re going to start today by exploring some of the common friction points of age in the workplace. I’m then going to ask the question, is it an age issue or just a behavioural problem? And I’ll finish by giving you some tips for combating the common problems that arise. So let’s get into it.

Now I am going to talk about some of the friction points that you have with age in the workplace, but should age really make a difference? Well, when you’re leading someone older than you, it really comes down to your confidence. You’ve gotta be confident in what you’re doing and what you have to offer despite the superior experience of someone who’s working for you. On the other hand, being led by someone who’s older than you can be enormously beneficial, if you can rely on and draw on their experience. But sometimes the conflicts that arise with an older boss come down to your own resilience and your own ability to influence them. Now, someone who may dismiss you as not having the experience or capability to add value is going to be difficult to influence, but that’s what you need to learn to do. Now at the risk of succumbing to rash generalisations, there are actually some differences, at least at the perception level that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. So let’s just have a look at a couple of those.

The first is resilience. And resilience is one of those things that sort of naturally tends to increase over time. Having said that, most leaders aren’t as resilient as they could be – but you only find this out when they get into high pressure situations. Over time, we all get more comfortable that it’s okay for things to go wrong and that they aren’t going to be fatal. So that gives us a level of resilience and coping mechanism. And it’s likely if you’re dealing with someone 20 years your senior, they will have acquired more of this just because they’ve got more miles on the odometer. Then, there are the generational differences we hear so much about differences in attitudes, expectations and perspectives and it’s pretty easy to compare someone like a baby boomer with a millennial to see the differences.

They have relative levels of comfort with different aspects of work. So what the millennials lack in terms of patience and perseverance, they might make up for in tech savviness and adaptability. There are industry differences. There are still some industries where progression through longevity is the norm – and it’s more prevalent in some than others – but there are still pockets of very socialist industrial relations environments where structured progression is based on time in the company, and it’s baked into workplace contracts and remuneration structures. It’s not based on individual merit or performance, and so the mentality and culture that develops in industries like this really say, I’ve been here longer so I deserve more, and I’m getting the next promotion. Different cultures treat the age issue differently. So for example, in Nigeria, elders are largely revered for their wisdom. I learned this from my colleague at Harvard, Henry Cenimetery, a Nigerian banker – and no, he’s not the one that sends those emails about your unexpected inheritance – but this reverence leads to an organisational culture in Nigeria where you don’t directly challenge or criticise an employee who is older than you.

This makes it super tricky when an older person working for you isn’t performing. Unfortunately for the majority of people, as they get older, they tend to get more set in their ways and more stubborn, more convinced they’re right, and this can be true no matter whether they’re your leader or you are theirs. Interestingly, this is not an affliction that I suffer from – as I often like to say, the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything. Why? Well, years of trying to understand the world better by looking at it through other people’s eyes. But let’s not overlook the fact that the perspective and experience that comes with age can be enormously beneficial to the younger people around, and our job as leaders is to work out how to capitalise on that.

Putting any problem you encounter down to an issue with age is problematic in itself. It’s often a sign that you lack confidence as a leader, with people who are older than you or sometimes even people who are smarter than you. But you’re going to experience both pretty regularly if you have a successful leadership career, so you need to get good at leading anyone regardless of age, race, intellect, gender experience and so forth. Simplifying it down to, “My boss is an angry old troll,” or “This old guy has just recalcitrant,” sort of misses the point. As always, you need to work out what you can do, focus on the things that within your control and not blame, them because that’s completely outside of your control. Why don’t we start by taking age or any other personal attribute off the table entirely and look at everything else rationally for what it is.

Invalid attribution of behaviours is a very common product of the way our brains work. There’s a massive lesson in this for our own view of stereotypes. I learned this maybe in my late teens or early twenties. A good mate of mine at the time, who’ll probably never know quite how much he helped to shape my thinking, was Jim Coplanis. As the name might suggest, Jim’s an Australia of Greek descent. One night we were driving through the streets of Sydney, and a hotted-up car with five young guys who hooning about, hanging out the windows, came screaming out of a side street and narrowly missed us, as it sped off in a cloud of burning rubber. Now I said something that I’m quite embarrassed to admit, but with the shock of what had happened, the first thing that came out of my mouth was a racial slur. And Jim said to me, why did you call them that?

I said, “Because they are, did you just see what they did?” And Jim just said quietly, “Yeah, but they’re just dickheads. That’s got nothing to do with their race.” Now that hit me like a pie in the face, and I found that lesson incredibly valuable in the many years since when trying to overcome my own subconscious biases and stereotypes. Now, where were we? Oh yeah, you take age off the table.

When your boss bullies you, it’s not because they’re older, it’s because they’re a bully. You may just feel slightly less equipped to respond, because the age strengthens the power gap between you. But focus on the bullying and work out what your options are for dealing with that. It’s not about the age. When an older worker in your team as being difficult to manage, or refuses to get on board with your direction, it’s not because they’re older, it’s because they’re insubordinate.

Passive aggressive resistance from a team member below can come from anyone, regardless of age. So level the playing field and make it about the insubordinate behaviour, not the age. And when one of these older people tells you that they know better because they’ve been doing the job longer, remind them of the paradox and ask yourself the same question. Do they actually have 20 years of experience, or do they have one year’s experience repeated 20 times? Remember, you’ve got the leadership job, not them. Be confident in the fact that you bring something to the table that they don’t and realise that it’s your job to get the most out of everyone – them included.

Alright, tis is pretty straightforward. Let’s just finish up with how to combat some of these common problems. These types of issues come in every colour of the rainbow, so I’m just going to give you a few guidelines for how to think through a problem. But it will be situationally dependent, there are no hard and fast rules and of course there are genuine cultural differences – so what works in the US won’t work the same way in Japan. The best tip I can give you, I’ve actually already given: if you think you have a problem with someone because of their age, the first thing you need to do is take age off the table. Look at the behaviours and the performance for what they are and just address those. Now if you can keep this one thing in mind, it’s going to hold you in really good stead when if you have a problem that you think is related to someone who’s older than you. You may just find it a little more difficult with an older person because of the cultural power dynamics as we’ve just mentioned.

So first of all, when you have older people reporting to you, there’s one thing that you sort of need to do straight off the bat. You need to make them feel valued and worthwhile, just like you would with anyone in your team. But because they do have some special expertise and experience, ask them for their advice in the specific area of that expertise and experience, because they will have some knowledge that can add value to your team. Don’t be intimidated by the superior knowledge or experience – it’s your job to harness that intellect and experience and bring it to the fore. So you have to know how you’re going to do that to add value to the team and the overall outcomes, but you also have strengths that they don’t. And the most value that can come from the team is by getting the best out of everyone and working out how to turn that into value.

But judge everyone on their merits. Leadership is leadership no matter who it is you’re leading. It’s fine to disagree, but if one of your team members is refusing to get on board with your direction, it’s just another flavour of resistance. And remember, strong leaders set boundaries and then they enforce consequences. So as a leader, your greatest friend and companion is the challenge, coach and confront framework. If you haven’t listened to Episode #57 of the podcast, it’s really worth going back and doing that. That’s www.yourceomentor.com/episode57. Challenge, coach and confront is where it all happens for a leader. The challenge piece is stretching people to make sure you set really clear and ambitious targets for them so they know what they have to achieve to meet the standards in both performance and behaviour. The coaching is the fun bit – that’s where you get to help people by observing what they’re doing and give them feedback on how they’re performing.

Remember, people are pretty similar, they want to know three things when they walk into work each day. What are your expectations of me? How am I performing against those expectations? And what does my future hold? And so the coaching piece lets you bring that to the fore, so that people know where they are and they have the confidence to move ahead and deliver on the goals that they’ve been challenged to achieve. And finally, when people aren’t performing or behaving – choosing not to do so because you’re giving them the choice and setting them up for success – then you have to step in and confront them. And it’s a really important part of the cycle, because without consequences, people will just do whatever they’re going to do. And you’ve got to do this challenge, coach, confront piece without fear or favour. This is for everyone in your team, the high performers, the poor performers and everyone in between.

But if you do this the right way, it’s going to help you to stand strong so that you don’t cop shit from anyone. And this mean you become closed off, or that you don’t listen to them or that you become domineering, but you need to be strong enough to not let the tail wag the dog. Who’s leading the team, you or them? If you find that certain people aren’t respecting you simply because you’re a young leader, you need to make it really clear where you stand. I might need your experience and wisdom, and I might value that, but I am not going to allow poor behaviour because I know very well that the standard I walk past is the standard I set. So strength and consistency will win the day here – don’t you take a backward step. The next scenario that I just want to finish off on is when you report to an older boss.

Now the most important thing about a boss is you’ve always got to make them look good. It doesn’t matter who they are, but you can bank on their self interest. So make sure you always deliver, and don’t take it personally if they don’t want to listen to you. You just need to lead the right way, and you’ll be their boss in a few years. Influencing upwards is the most important thing and it’s really, really tricky. So if you have a power-wielding boss who has support from above them, it’s often an untenable situation, and you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. Are you going to suck it up and learn from the experience, and work out how to navigate your way through really tough situation where you find it really difficult to influence? Or are you’re just going to vote with your feet and try and find a better boss?

Often, a boss who’s more set in their ways will not want to listen to your ideas for performance improvement. We get pretty regular feedback from the leaders who listen to our podcast and are operating at lower levels that as they try to pick up and implement some of the No Bullsh!t Leadership concepts, their bosses begin to feel threatened, because it exposes some of their flaws and weaknesses. This is to be expected, but make sure you don’t just drop your bundle on this. You need to persevere if you want the team to deliver what’s best, and even if your boss doesn’t know that, you do, so hold the course. Although leading older people in the workforce can be a little tricky, if we can learn to strip away our preconceptions about the power dynamic and lead every person on their own individual merits, we’ll actually find that the age barriers are much less than we might’ve first thought.

My parting advice: don’t focus on respecting your elders, respect the people who do the job the right way and produce results. Equally, don’t be afraid of a more confident older person. Lead strongly with the right intent and don’t compromise the standard you’re trying to set. Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode #91. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so please take a few minutes to rate and review the podcast or share it with the people in your network – this is what gets us out there reaching even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, “The joys of outsourcing: It’s not all beer and Skittles”. Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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