Younger bosses, older underlings

May 2, 2011: 12:23 PM ET

Was your boss still in diapers when you landed your first full-time gig? A few tips on how to build a solid working relationship.

By Stephenie Overman, contributor

FORTUNE -- Message to younger bosses: It's not that your older staffers don't understand how to use computers to communicate; it's that they prefer face-to-face contact.

"A younger boss tends to think that older workers are not as technologically savvy, not as quick," says Cam Marston, president of consulting firm Generational Insights. The truth is, Baby Boomers understand top-line messaging and Twitter but see technology as an adjunct rather than a necessity.

These Baby Boomers are continuing to work even as they reach retirement age and many find themselves reporting to younger people. A 2010 CareerBuilder poll of 5,200 workers found that 69% of workers 55 or older have younger bosses.

If you're one of those bosses, and you want to succeed with your older underlings, "get up from behind your desk. Look them in the eye, talk to them. Say: 'I need the project done by this date. Let me know if you need anything,'" advises Marston, who is the author of Motivating the "What's in It for Me?" Workforce: Manage Across the Generational Divide and Increase Profits.

John Dewar, 27, a senior information security engineer for an IT consulting firm, has supervised a number of staff members who are older than he is.

Originally, he didn't put much stock in face-to-face communication. "I went to visit when there was an issue, but I didn't want to be the hovering boss."

Dewar prefers email but learned that it can be difficult to communicate the right tone, particularly with his older coworkers. "Messages come across too forceful. As soon as I hit send, the person was up in my office [complaining]. We'd end up on the same page, once we talked it out."

He's since learned that with some of his staff, particularly those who are older, "I had to go talk to them. Then I'd document [what was said] with email."

A bigger problem in the beginning, Dewar says, was convincing some older workers "that I knew what I was doing" -- and that he was in charge.

"I got a lot of 'I've been around this organization longer,'" he says. "It took a lot of holding ground, standing firm. Mostly it was just having honest dialogues about what I expected and what they expected of me."

His reward for his perseverance was that he found he could rely on the older staffers' institutional knowledge "on how to get things through the bureaucracy."

Building credibility: An uphill battle?

Younger bosses often have issues establishing credibility, says Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc., an HR consulting firm. Young people who have been put in charge of others usually have impressive formal credentials and plenty of ambition. "They want to make a mark soon. They want to solve problems, to invent things."

But they also, by definition, lack experience and context, Tulgan says. And context matters. They must remember that "everyone did not materialize when you walked in."

Be upfront about what you don't know, he recommends, and gather information from more seasoned people who report to you. "What is the mission? Where does [your] team fit? What were you hired to accomplish? Gather the information that makes up the context."

One of the biggest mistakes you can make, Tulgan says, is to walk in and announce "there's a new sheriff in town. This is the way it's going to be."

Taking the falsely humble approach -- "Don't think of me as your boss" -- doesn't work either.

Instead, Tulgan advises saying, "'Tell me how things work. But here's why I was hired. Here's how I intend to conduct myself as the leader of the group. Here's how I'm going to operate."

Advantages of the younger boss/older staffer relationship

Janis Grover, a specialty foods marketing consultant, has worked for younger bosses on two occasions.

The first experience, at a major national retailer, was a disaster. Her boss was not an experienced manager, Grover says, "and wasn't able to ask for assistance. She wouldn't take any advice. She was competing with us. She was fighting with a 60-year-old secretary on how to write a form."

The outcome? "She was fired," after Grover had reported to her for about a year.

Later, Grover worked for a family-owned company where "everybody was much younger." This time, instead of being threatened by Grover's experience, "they looked to me as an expert who knew a lot about the product. The younger people used me as a resource."

Sharen Glennon, an associate marketing director for Stevens Institute of Technology, knows that she takes a different approach to interoffice communication than her younger boss.

"I don't use as much social media. I'm more of a face-to-face kind of person and she isn't. I try to adapt a little to her method and I push my method a little as well. I knock on the door."

Glennon sees an advantage to having a younger boss who is closer in age to the students the university wants to reach. "[Having] a younger person is a good idea. It's just hard for us who are older to fit," she says.

If you work for a younger boss, Tulgan advises: "Try to be honest with yourself. Somebody made the business decision that this person is your boss. The person is not higher in the eyes of God, just on the organization chart."

If your younger boss isn't ready for that spot on the chart, helping that person learn to manage without overstepping your boundaries is a subtle art.

"You don't need to march in and say, 'I've been here for 20 years, since you were in the third grade,'" Tulgan says, but make it clear that you want direction.

"Ask, 'How can I help you monitor and measure my performance? How do you want me to report to you?'" he says.

If your boss doesn't set clear ground rules, don't just hide and hope for the best. Acknowledge the boss's authority every step of the way, but "take the lead," Tulgan says, "in getting clear marching orders."

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