Thriving as a Sandwich Manager in Today’s Age-Diverse Workplace

Amy joined the workforce almost twenty years ago. Over this time, she has risen steadily through the ranks to a position of significant responsibility. She now finds herself supervising people considerably older and younger. And boy, are they different!

Her older contributors show up on time every morning and put in ‘a good day’s work.’ It is clear they feel a sense of duty and responsibility to the organisation. At the same time, adapting to technology continues to be a challenge as does change of work flow when the idea isn’t nurtured for a while beforehand.

Her younger contributors generate a continuing stream of good ideas, especially based on new applications of technology. Their energy and enthusiasm can be contagious and they seem to have a real investment in the organisation’s community involvement. That said, they expect flexibility in work hours. She finds herself correcting external communications because of their poor grammar skills. And they ask for constant feedback about performance.

If all this resonates with you, chances are you’re a sandwich manager.

As the generations continue to evolve through the workplace, more and more managers are finding themselves balancing the expectations and behaviours of those at both ends of their work lives.

Without a set of tactics for negotiating these differences, this bifurcated workforce can add a level of stress, not to mention prematurely gray hair, to your existence. So how do you cope, or even use this situation to your advantage? Here are few ideas and illustrations:

Take stock. When Michael assumed his role as warehouse manager, he had no idea that his staff would range in age from 18 to 72. His first cross-generational challenge turned out to be a couple of long-timers complaining about adolescents necking in the back corners of the building. After this, and several other comments about work ethic, mobile distractions and ‘old-farts’ who move too slow, he decided to take some time and examine the situation in perspective.

Performance issues weren’t really the problem. It was the heartburn around daily insinuations, snide comments and hurt feelings, not unlike those at a dinner for the extended family. Once he had a handle on the real issues, he was able to act in ways that addressed everyone’s concerns. He began with an emphasis on tolerance and patience for others.


Daydreaming image courtesy Michael Jastremski@openphoto.net

Identify the challenge to others. When she took charge, Stephanie was surprised by the disconnect between the age groups in her call centre. Even more so, she felt a little betrayed by the lack of understanding and empathy, even from her supervisors. After one particularly stressful day of ‘young versus old,’ she called her management team together to discuss the situation.

While all admitted they knew there was some stress, it hadn’t dawned on them that age and maturity could be playing a role. Once that came out, they set about finding ways to take this into consideration when conflicts arose.

Those around any manager, may not put themselves in that person’s shoes and consider the balancing act they are performing as they nurture, encourage, direct, correct and even discipline the diversity of personalities and experiences under their charge.

Making it a consistent point of reflection will encourage more of a focus on the differences in behaviour and attitude. This doesn’t mean griping, by the way. Don’t expect anyone to hold you a ‘pity party.’ But you will engender a bit of empathy, at least from some when they consider your plight.

Fall on your sword. When Maria assumed her role as ‘lead scientist,’ she hadn’t considered that the majority of her team was twenty years her senior. While they didn’t pat her on the head per se, it became obvious these seasoned professionals had expected a new supervisor they considered ‘worthy.’ So here she was, new company, new job, and new colleagues who second-guessed her every decision when they weren’t just deadly silent. After talking this through with her supervisor, she figured she had nothing to lose. So she called them all into a meeting one Friday afternoon.

Fall on your sword.

Maria said, “Look, many of you have much more experience than I. In fact, a couple of you were candidates for my job. I can certainly learn from you and would appreciate your patience as I come up to speed. At the same time, I can be a resource for you administratively. Most of you don’t want to be bothered arguing for funds and dealing with the bureaucracy. I’m good at that. So let me run interference and allow you to focus on your science. This is not a perfect world. But I’m hoping that you will respect me as I work to make your jobs easier and more productive.”

The jury is still out, but the tension has subsided. Rather than stony silence, Maria is slowly winning over the more recalcitrant contributors. One of them even teased her the other day in a friendly-sort-of way.

Foster cross-gen dependence. In his job as an engineering manager, Mark watched with fascination as the company hired its first cohort of Millennial engineers. As this happened, the veteran professionals ‘circled the wagons’ in meetings, during lunch, even on job sites. Of course, his younger charges responded in kind. Taking advantage of the business’ nature, he stopped asking for who wanted to work on a particular project and instead began assigning roles, balancing emerging and seasoned engineers. There was resistance from both sides at first.

The next generation is not quite ready to enter the workforce yet, but the coming few years will see substantial numbers of Baby Boomers retiring or at least assuming more limited roles.

After a few weeks of this, he called an all-hands meetings and brought in someone from the outside to facilitate a conversation about these behaviours. Within a couple of days of hashing it around, he reinforced his decision to integrate project teams. There are still the occasional comments about entitlement or old-fashioned ways. But it is now done more in jest as the generations have come to accept each other. While this all seemed obvious to Mark at first, he hadn’t considered how subtly territorial some people can become.

Revisit your team’s age diversity periodically. It might seem surprising to some, but the leading edge of the Millennial generation is now in its thirties.

Over time, many of those who were thought of as ‘kids’ will take on senior responsibilities. Taking time to revisit this evolution periodically will ensure an on-going environment of cross-generational collaboration and preventing unnecessary stress and gray hair.

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