Who's the Boss? Navigating the Management Dynamics of the Generation Gap

This week’s blog is from Lisa Hueneke, freelance writer, artist, activist, environmentalist, and high potential for becoming a management consultant!  She’s a true renaissance woman and we’re glad to have her putting down roots in Savannah. Read on as Lisa shares some key people skills for young managers, entrepreneurs and business owners. FYI – The Creative Coast’s blogspot is Savannah’s sounding board for local thinkers, innovators, wanderers and wonders. Guest bloggers share their thoughts, opinions and creative noodling from all over the map…

“Hello, are you the Director?,” a woman leans over the desk to an older staff member next to me. It’s another crowded opening night at the gallery. I extend my hand, “Hello, I’m Lisa Hueneke, the director. Nice to meet you.” There is a small, awkward pause before she takes my hand and introduces herself. At 27, I had found myself as executive director of a non-profit arts organization. Having formerly been the program coordinator for the organization for the past year, my new role required leadership and management of the organization’s budget, grants, programming, and a small staff all older than myself. Youth (in the most general terms) can come with a bad rap sheet of irresponsibility, inexperience, and immaturity. Yet it’s become more common to see younger individuals start businesses, be CEOs, and hold higher positions of leadership. At the same time, there is a rise of individuals seeking new, or second careers, later in life and those working past retirement age. The workplace does not often make multi-generational dynamics easy to navigate. The following are ways I found most helpful to me in managing individuals older than myself as well as being a young first-time boss.

It’s Not About You

You may feel the need to prove to yourself and to others you deserve your position. However, starting down a path of self-affirmation will only be a disservice. As a leader you are entrusted with the responsibility for other’s work and fulfilling a broader vision that extends beyond yourself. Your job is not about proving worthiness or securing professional prestige. The reality is the work isn’t about you. As disappointing as this may sound, this perspective can actually create an unhindered space that allows you clarity to face challenges and make decisions without the drama that comes with personal motives. No one wants to work for an egomaniac, especially one significantly younger than themselves.

Set the Tone

Be up front about different working styles, preferred ways of communication, and workplace quirks that may be very different from your older staff. For example, maybe you like to work from home once a week or communicate through a chat platform on day-to-day matters. Explain why this is beneficial to your work and when possible, offer flexibility to support their best work. Acknowledging differences can help avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and keep the door open to address issues in the future.

Let Your Passion Lead You, but not Blind You

Passion is important to drive hard work and embark on new projects. Passion can also produce blind spots to see issues clearly or take constructive criticism. This may especially be the case when the business or company is your own labor of love. It takes self-awareness to recognize and remove personal investment to evaluate areas of improvement and consider feedback. A mature approach to criticism and active problem solving demonstrates a capacity to tackle hard challenges head on.

Be Professional

Your workplace conversations should not reflect your Facebook status. In managing older staff it is even more important to set the expectations for a professional environment. Oversharing or crossing professional lines can blur necessary boss-to-employee roles. This can be especially hard to balance in small organizations. While different workplaces will have their own set of norms, you do not want to utilize staff to cultivate a parental relationship, be your emotional support, or seek an audience for personal tribulations.

Have Your Act Together

You will likely have tasks overflowing your plate. It can be overwhelming, but be firm and informed in your decision making. Do the extra work to learn up on areas that you are less familiar. When you go into a meeting or planning session, have a clear goal for what is to be accomplished. Being unprepared, disorganized, and even apologetic is not confidence inducing to staff who may have developed a strong work ethic before you were even born. Being prepared shows you understand the work and builds trust with your staff.

Know When to Ask For Help

You won’t have all the answers. This is a good thing. It provides an opportunity to utilize the skills and knowledge of older staff members who have an area of expertise. Engage their strengths and ask their opinions to tap into a wider a base of knowledge, connections, and new ideas. Give ownership and buy in to areas of the work where they excel. Asking for help is not a weakness but a strength that shows the value of a collective team.

Show Meaningful Appreciation

Find out how your staff like to be appreciated. Staff from an older generation may like to be thanked in a different way. There are many ways to show gratitude; public acknowledgement, office perks, personal thank yous, bonuses, etc. It is just as important to show your appreciation by supporting their professional growth of skills and interests. Provide opportunities to exercise their best skills and gain new ones.


There can be different kinds of tension that arises between a younger boss and older staff. Passive comments, small acts of insecurities, or constant references to the difference in age should be addressed at their onset. If an employee is continually referencing generational stereotypes or age differences, steer the conversation back to the task. If this is not effective, approach their comments with a desire to understand where they are coming from rather than a way to exert authority.

Take Away

To be clear, being humble and grateful is not a sacrifice for ambition. Nor is removing ego a sacrifice for confidence. Confidence is needed to be a leader and ambition is needed to push the work, your staff, and yourself to be better. There may be times someone asks “Who’s the Boss?”. However, this should not be a question among your staff because you, as the boss, first supported and encouraged their roles as valued employees. A management approach that embraces the dynamics of diverse generations and perspectives will only find greater success in the modern, multi-generational workplace. Lisa]]>

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