Age and Respect at Work
I’m 28 years old and have been working at a mid-sized company for the last couple of years as a manager. Our company has a very loyal workforce, and a significant number of employees have been with the company for over 25 years. I’ve worked very hard over the past 2 years to prove my place in this company and its future, but I still think that some employees think I may not deserve my position. Or some may feel uncomfortable reporting to a boss that’s almost half their age. Do you have any advice for earning their trust and respect?
To answer your question, let’s tease out several issues:
1. How to hear the trust and respect of colleagues (of any age, but to your question, particularly when they are older than you are).
2. Age of employees versus longevity within the company.
3. Trying to discern what other people think and why.
Let’s take the first aspect first. The best way to earn trust and respect is to behave in ways that earn trust and respect. Typically, that means: being respectful to others and genuinely valuing them; following through on what you commit to doing; being a good citizen and colleague (e.g. pitching in, being helpful and considerate), and doing your job diligently and well. When you are a manager or leader, it also means leading with fairness, humanity and humility, and as much transparency as is feasible. You may not yet know what it’s like to juggle children and elderly parents (and most recently, add pandemic issues to the mix.) You may not be sympathetic when your colleagues complain about the wider range of life’s travails that impact daily life. Be compassionate. Note: Younger managers are less likely to follow through on commitments, so to earn trust, make sure you follow through.
For the second aspect, it can be hard to tease out how much of your (perceived) challenge in proving yourself and earning trust is because you’re younger or because you have fewer years at the company—regardless of your age. (When younger employees experience bias and discrimination from older employees, it’s referred to as reverse ageism.) Employees with significantly more longevity at the company possess a historical view of the company—what’s been tried in the past, what’s worked and hasn’t, and how things have changed (and haven’t). So if you were in your 50s and started there two years ago, you might encounter the very same reactions from the employees, because of their deep knowledge and history of the company.
You may think they’re saying to themselves something like, “That young whippersnapper comes in here and thinks she [or he if you are male] knows better than we do. Hah!” Maybe they do think that. Maybe they don’t. We can’t know. But if you were 50, they might well say “That woman [or man] comes in here and thinks she knows better than we do. Hah!” Hopefully, you see my point. You and they may attribute their reaction to your age because you are younger, but the same response could happen regardless of age.
This leads me to the third aspect: trying to discern what they’re thinking and why. You may be right. Research indicates that younger employees are more likely to have their judgment questioned, and a relative lack of experience may be viewed instead as a lack of expertise. This is where humility can be helpful—being honest about your relative lack of experience in the company (and experience in general, by virtue of being younger)—but also conveying the expertise you do have, and what you bring to the table by virtue of having had different training.
Rather than spend energy on what they might be thinking, focus on how to channel your knowledge of them to earn trust and respect. If they are negative about your ideas or proposals, assume they have a good reason, respect their history with the company, and ask them more about why they’re down on the idea. Show them that you respect their experience. Ask questions to address why they think the present is similar (or dissimilar) to the past. Engage them in problem-solving with you and use their knowledge and experience.
One idea is to create a reverse mentorship, in which both parties act as both mentor and mentee, respecting what each brings to the table and also pushing each other out of their respective comfort zones.