Research: Young managers, older employees and the impact on performance

I  recently came across a study that resonated, both personally and professionally. It focused on age difference between managers and those who report in to them.

Societal changes have seen an increase in the number of younger people managing older employees. As Capelli and Novelli put it, in their book, there is a “new organizational order”.

The ramifications of this are something I’ve been increasingly seeing in recent years. When I’m called in to help a team in conflict, or coach a manager struggling with staff relationships, more often than not inverse age-difference is one of the key contributing factors.

The research

Published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior (May 2017), Florian Kunze’s and Jochen I Menges’ research explored the extent to which older employees will suffer negative emotions and lower performance, if managed by a younger person. They also assessed the impact on organisational performance. Something which had not, until now, been explored in any real depth.

-“Age-inverse supervisory relationships painfully violate career norms.”-

Kunze and Menges hypothesised that average age differences between younger managers and older direct reports are linked to company performance. They also hypothesised that the larger the age difference, the greater the negative emotions likely to be experienced and subsequently the bigger the negative impact on organisational performance. However, this was dependent on whether the worker expresses their unhappiness to their manager.

The findings

The researchers assessed 61 companies in Germany, across a range of sectors, with number of employees ranging from 18 to 3,625. They consistently found that:

  • The greater the difference in age, the more likely it was that negative emotions would be expressed;
  • The more that negative emotions were expressed, the bigger the negative impact on org performance; and
  • Average age was linked to negative emotions being more frequently expressed, suggesting that as a workforce ages, the more likely it is that negative feelings in a company might increase

-“Working daily under a younger supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace.”-

What it means for organisations

The researchers cite the ’emotional broadcaster theory’ of social sharing (Harber & Cohen 2005), which suggests that emotions can ripple through large groups, such as entire organizations. The impact of younger managers with older employees can be particularly potent for traditional, hierarchical organisations.

With this in mind, there are a couple of things organisations can do to help better manage the impact of the ‘new organizational order’:

Training and development: Workshops and courses focused on the different aspects of emotional intelligence (such as regulating one’s own emotions) can be really helpful. The researchers also suggest the positive impact that diversity training can have, which has a focus on being age bias-free.

Management development: Supporting new managers should be par for the course for organisations. There could be particular elements geared toward younger managers, particularly those who have large numbers of significantly older staff. This is where HR data is crucial.

Coaching and mentoring: I work with a lot of middle and senior managers and every single one of the says they wished they’d had a coach when they first became a manager. Organisations can support younger managers by getting them a coach and/or finding them a mentor (ideally, someone who has been in their situation of managing older employees).

Team coaching: This is something I have seen have a positive impact on teams where the manager is significantly younger than most of their team (and therefore, perceived to be inexperienced). Having a number of facilitated sessions to learn how to better work with each other and handle any tensions (before they surface) can be invaluable.

The most obvious limitation with the research relates to cultural differences. For example, would the findings be replicated in a different country with different cultural norms?

This aside, with retirement ages changing, and indeed the suggestion of the 100-year life, older employees with younger managers are likely to become the norm.

Until then, whilst we are in this transition phase from traditional, hierarchical ways of thinking in many organisations, it’s important that HR teams put in place interventions that support individuals and protect organisational performance.

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