How to Handle a Younger Boss

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By Lisa Johnson Mandell

younger bossIt's easy to be resentful when you have to take orders from someone who is younger than you. You might be more experienced, better educated, more knowledgeable and have seniority, but still, you're forced to submit to someone who might have been entering kindergarten when you were graduating high school.

If you've managed to avoid this situation so far in your career, don't be too smug. These days, it's highly likely that sometime soon you'll be working for someone well below your age bracket. The job search site CareerBuilder.com recently did a survey which revealed that 43 percent of workers 35 and older are currently working for a younger boss.

I know that I've been there, done that. Just after my 40th birthday, I was hired by a guy I'll call Jimmy who had just dropped out of law school. To save his self esteem and give him something to do, his daddy set him up with a website (granted, Jimmy did have a brilliant idea for it) and told him to hire a staff that would make his dreams come true.

He hired me to oversee content; my job would basically be writing everything for the site that would have hundreds, if not thousands of pages. Little did I know my duties would also involve managing a kid who was used to partying into the wee hours of the morning and coming to work hungover, using crude language and telling dirty jokes. All this, while I'm making him feel like he is managing me.

I actually made some good money before I found a more suitable position, which I was able to land because of what I'd accomplished working for Jimmy. He was no picnic, but working with him did move me forward and give me momentum. Jimmy is the extreme, of course. Most younger supervisors could never get away with being so wild and crazy. But almost all of them can be challenging to senior subordinates, in their own ways.


Older AND wiser

While answering to someone younger than you may sound like sheer torture, it doesn't have to be. It can actually be productive -- and even fun -- if you have the right attitude. Finding that attitude can be a bit of a challenge, however -- especially if you see yourself as smarter, more experienced and better qualified. Your success, and your very job, might be dependent on how big a slice of humble pie you're capable of eating.

"It's time to get over yourself," advises licensed therapist and career counselor Lori Bergstrom. "Lose your attitude and become a team player. Accept your position gracefully and learn to play well with others."

"Swallow your pride and you may learn something," says Forbes writer Susan Adams, who was reassigned from the print version of the magazine to the online version, and ended up being supervised by a younger employee. "I admit it: I felt both superior and a touch disdainful, just because of the age difference. I credit both of us for weathering those rocky first months together," she says.


How to handle a younger boss

Here are half a dozen tips for working well with a younger supervisor:

  • Figure out what drives your boss. Different generations are motivated by different things. For example, Generation Y is more motivated by causes and personal praise than Baby Boomers are. Baby Boomers are more motivated by financial rewards and promotions. Once you know what your boss values, you'll be better able to accommodate him or her, according to Bergstrom.

  • Subtly teach your boss what works best for you. You respond to certain types of praise, and you're best motivated by certain things that your boss probably isn't aware of. Don't go on and on about what doesn't work for you, but let your bosses know what does work for you and your co-workers. They'll be grateful for the heads up.

  • Adapt to the boss, don't expect the boss to adapt to you. No matter who is older or has been there longer, the person in the position of authority gets to make the rules. Get used to it and submit.

  • Find out about their preferred method of communication. Older workers usually prefer face-to-face communication, while younger workers may prefer e-mailing, texting or even tweeting. You might have to break down, get a smart phone, and figure out how to use it. That's not a bad thing.

  • Prove that you've got your boss's back. Do everything you can to be helpful without appearing superior or condescending. Quietly and competently swoop in and take care of business. Your boss will be grateful, and immediately understand that you're on his or her side.

  • Don't act like a parent or mentor. Forbes' Susan Adams points out that many older workers relate to younger workers as they would to a child or protege. Your younger boss does not want to be patronized or hovered over.

It may sound like a lot of work, but believe me, it's worth the effort. I have at least 10 years on my boss here at AOL, but she's been here far longer than I have, and she's much better educated -- a PhD to my bachelor's degree. We respect each other's talents, abilities and experience, and we work together for a common goal. Plus, she never tells dirty jokes. Life is good.


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Lisa Johnson MandellLisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.

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