My Manager Has Less Experience Than Me—How Do I Handle That?
Just because they're younger doesn't mean you can't work together as a team.
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Shortly before my father retired at the age of 65, he called me to tell me his new manager on a particular project—my father was a civil engineer—was 30 years old. Although his new manager had all the necessary schooling, a bachelor’s degree from MIT under his belt, and a few years in the field, what he lacked was work experience. They ended up butting heads a lot, and the work dynamic became not only unbearable for them but for everyone working together.
My father’s situation is far from uncommon. According to a 2014 survey by CareerBuilder, 38% of employees had a manager that was younger than them, with 16% of respondents reporting that their younger boss was 10 or more years younger than them. Although 91% of those surveyed didn’t find an issue with having a younger manager, the majority of those who did have an issue—55%—complained that their younger boss thought they knew more, when they were the ones with years—and, in some cases, decades—of experience. However, just because you may have more experience doesn’t mean you want your judgement to get the best of you.
“While, yes, you may have more experience, better-developed skills, etc., you need to step back, drop your ego, and see the big picture,” says Jenn DeWall, millennial life and career coach. “Someone likely saw the value and potential in your boss, so trust in that.”
Of course, this doesn’t deter from the fact that there can be a lot of other factors at play (i.e. racial, age, or gender discriminations), but it’s important to open your mind to the possibilities as opposed to putting up a wall right away if those things don’t seem to be the case. If you’re unsure of how to work with a manager who is younger than you, scroll below to see what experts have to say.
1. Allow yourself to be curious
As DeWall explains, every person you meet is both your teacher and your student. And, in some ways, an age gap can really exemplify what you can learn from each other. That’s why she suggests being open to practicing curiosity. “Ask open-ended questions and get to know them both personally and professionally,” says DeWall.
Sure, the younger manager may not get some pop culture reference from 10 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas where you can understand each other and overlap. “Remember we’re more alike than different in many ways, [so] find the commonality. By doing so you’re creating a better work environment for yourself instead of being annoyed and frustrated by the judgments you have about your boss.”
2. Be professional
It would be remiss of me not to suggest that having a younger manager can create animosity for some people. Being told your new manager is younger than you can be a real kick to the ego, but it’s important to remain professional.
“Do not make age a point of contention at work,” says Erica McCurdy, MCC, CEO of TugWaa, Inc and McCurdy Life Coach, Inc. “Pointing out your manager’s young age only highlights your own age.” And talking smack about a manager either to their face or behind their back never fairs well. You don’t want to blow future career opportunities.
3. Adjust your expectations
If you’ve been working with the same manager for years, then all of a sudden a 25-year-old rolls in, it’s time to adjust your expectations—not just for your new manager but for yourself and the workplace environment.
DeWall suggests asking yourself the following questions: “What do you think your boss needs to know? Why do you believe that to be true? Is it because of an experience with a past leader or organization? Does that expectation apply to your current organization?”
Once a new manager is brought in, no matter their age, things are going to change. You may suddenly be asked to perform more than you had in the past, or maybe your new manager is far more relaxed than your previous one. You need to be willing to be flexible in an office environment that’s likely to change—for better or for worse.
4. Reverse-develop your skills
Although it’s not a well-known expression, according to DeWall, “it simply means to disrupt the thinking that bosses are expected to develop you instead of the other way around.” In other words, make a jump to offer up your skills and experience before your new manager has a chance to make you into what they want you to be.
“We should all practice servant leadership and think about how we can support the development and growth of those around us, regardless of position, to make the team and organization better,” says DeWall. “Just remember the expressions together we rise and there’s no ‘I’ in team.”
This not only gives you leverage but allows you to feel like you’re putting your experience front and center, proving that you have what it takes to shine—despite being old enough to be your new manager’s parent.
5. Act your age
If there’s a substantial age difference, don’t try to play a role that you’re not. Trying to act and dress like you’re younger, when those days are long gone, isn’t going to do anything for your job performance. You should enjoy the age you’re in because it’s amazing!
“Nobody can sustain pretending in a way that brings job satisfaction and happiness,” says McCurdy. “Be positive and upbeat, but trying too hard to act like one of the kids is only going to subject you to behind-your-back ridicule.” And if this is the case, then be mindful that you may be working in a toxic work environment, as a healthy team shouldn’t gossip about another team member’s personality.
Sure, Forever 21 has cute—and inexpensive—clothes, but don’t suddenly trade in your Ann Taylor you’ve been wearing for years to try to appeal to a younger manager.
6. Don’t act like a parent
In the same vein of acting your age, whatever you do and no matter how much more experience you have, don’t act like a parent to your younger manager. “While you may have more experience, your boss was hired for a reason,” says McCurdy. “Unless you’re asked directly, refrain from acting too worldly or giving unwanted advice.”
McCurdy suggests thinking about how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. Although your instinct may be to take your younger manager under your experienced wing, don’t do it. Save your parental behavior for your own kids, nieces, nephews, and the other kiddos in your life outside the office.
7. Play to their strengths
Whatever profession you find yourself in, every employee—including the manager—has strengths and weaknesses. DeWall suggests playing to your younger manager’s strengths.
“I’ve worked with a boss before where they had a higher title and less/different experience in some of her responsibilities,” says DeWall. “Instead of focusing on her deficit, we looked at it as an opportunity to leverage each other’s strengths. We ended up having more of a peer relationship because of splitting responsibilities based on strengths instead of by title, and it worked great.”
If you learn from one another and work together, DeWall explains that this can benefit your working relationship. For example, you’ll really appreciate this technique when it’s your turn to be a manager someday. So take into account what it’s like for them and find a way to meet in the middle by bringing your experience and their strengths to the table.