How To Manage Older Subordinates

One of the most difficult management problems is how to deal with much older subordinates. Why is this so? Foremost is the entrenched difference in beliefs, and second is the frequent lack of respect, especially if you are much younger than them. Many simply doubt your credentials to preside as a superior.
My observation is that most people who have to handle hostile seniors tend to have faulty strategies in handling the matter. Usually, the approach is in the extreme, from tolerance to threats. Both are rarely effective and, in most cases, aggravate the situation. What is needed is to have a long-range plan to chart the best moves instead of just going by gut feel.
To assist you in navigating this common dilemma, look over the suggestions below to serve as a guide:
Study their needs and desires. Although certain traits may be more common in their group, it would be a blunder to stereotype all seniors. You must manage them based on their particular situation. Those near retiring are the most difficult to change, simply because they feel they are unlikely to be fired and that they are no longer aspiring for a higher position. One other factor is the difference in both physical capability and priorities. The older the person is, the less likely he will be tolerant of overtime work or activities that will sap his strength. He will strongly prefer to go home to his family than to stay out late.
Show respect. Filipino culture demands respect for the elderly. This is true even in the work place. Besides the mandatory “po” and “ho”, care must be taken not to raise your voice even when reprimanding those who are significantly older than yourself. Structure your instructions in the form of a request instead of an order. This will get more willing compliance. While a humble approach is better regarded by everyone, this is even more important when dealing with the elderly.
Act swiftly. The first few weeks you are in charge will be critical. You must act decisively soon, or else change will be more difficult to implement. People are more likely to accept change at the start when they are expecting that changes will be made. If you wait too long, they may think that you will just maintain the status quo.
Profit from their experience. Instead of treating their knowledge with contempt, you must realize the priceless value of their experience. You may think that they are dinosaurs with obsolete ideas that are holding up the company from progressing. In reality, it is you who are more likely to be out of touch with reality. Experience is indeed the best teacher and they have many more years of experience than you do; it would be best to hear out their opinions before embarking on changes that may backfire. The great thing about letting seniors “show you the ropes” is, besides learning from them, they will be more conducive to cooperate with your initiatives since you will have built a reservoir of good will.
Give them needed training. Instead of worrying about their outmoded skills, it would be more constructive to first try if it is possible for them to learn it through training. There are now plenty of companies that specialize in short courses that can enable people to be up-to-date with their skills. People tend to underestimate both the older person’s desire and capability to learn new things. Studies show that elderly people not suffering from mental illness are highly trainable. Just be sensitive to seniors’ fears of looking stupid if they are unable to learn at the pace of their younger co-workers. You should look for ways to allay this apprehension. One possibility is that you could have them taught separately. One of the areas where older people often are lacking is in the use of computers and application software.
Do not allow uncooperative behavior indefinitely. There are many reasons why a person may fail to respond positively to any measure you take. It may be that the person is bound to benefit by your failure (he may be hoping to take over your position!). It is also possible that his beliefs are just different from yours and that he has no intention of changing. After you have tried all the less painful options, in hopeless cases, you must consider terminating his services. This may be difficult to implement especially if the person has a family to feed and is unlikely to get another job that pays as well. However, letting one person off the hook may be taken as a sign that your orders can be freely ignored. You may also be prevented from taking disciplinary action against other personnel if you fail to apply company rules to everyone. Ultimately, it is the employee himself who is responsible for the consequences of his actions.
The problem with senior subordinates is rarely insoluble. There are many ways and means to make them a productive part of your team. Once you learn how to best deal with them, you may change your mind and find yourself looking for older, experienced people as your ideal employees.

*Originally published by the Manila Bulletin. C-4, Sunday, September 23, 2012. Written by Ruben Anlacan, Jr. (President, BusinessCoach, Inc.) All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or copied without express written permission of the copyright holders.