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Volume 3, Issue 44;   October 29, 2003: Dealing with Org Chart Age Inversions

Dealing with Org Chart Age Inversions

by

What happens when you learn that your new boss is younger than you are? Or when the first two applicants you interview for a position reporting to you are ten years older than you are? Do you have a noticeable reaction to org chart age inversions?

Most of us would agree that managers aren't better human beings than the people they manage, and that their talent isn't any more rare than the talents of the managed. If we didn't feel that way, we wouldn't gripe so much about our bosses.

A young managerYet most of us associate status with org chart position. We treat managers with greater respect than "individual contributors," and we make managers out of individual contributors who perform well, despite the obvious differences in skills that managing requires.

When managers are older and more experienced than the managed, we accept the difference in age as an explanation of this disparity in perceived personal worth. We tell ourselves that it's OK that the older, more experienced manager has higher status — someday we'll have that status, too.

But in an age inversion, we sometimes feel uncomfortable, in part because greater experience no longer explains the disparity in status. We begin to wonder whether the younger manager might really be a better person.

To deal with our discomfort, we can begin by understanding why many age inversions happen. Here are three sources.

In age inversion,
we sometimes feel
uncomfortable, because
we connect
organizational status
with self-worth
Mergers and acquisitions
Because different cultures have different patterns of hiring, different histories, and different expansion rates, it's possible for a "younger" organization to find itself in the dominant position of a combination.
Hiring strategy
Although they rarely admit it, because of legal risks, some organizations aim to reduce the age of their work forces. Such a strategy can entail promoting and hiring younger managers as a way of encouraging older workers to terminate voluntarily.
Escalating workloads
Resource constraints often lead to progressively more burdensome workloads. Since younger workers tend to be more willing or able to perform well under high load conditions, they compete more successfully for the limited opportunities for promotion.

These causes of age inversions are unrelated to personal worth. They're contextual — they result from factors independent of the people involved in the inversion. We often forget this when we're involved in inversions ourselves.

It also helps to recognize that the status difference between managers and managed is probably exaggerated. It's a holdover from the days when most work was menial, and managers truly did have a rare skill set — they could "read, write, and cipher." We can all do that now, but the status differential remains.

Status is only status. Your worth as a person — as a child of your parents, as a parent to your children, as a citizen of your country, as a friend to your friends, and as a human being — transcends organizational status. No organization, not even yours, can measure accurately your personal worth. Only you can do that. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Dogs Wag Their Tails  Next Issue

Reader Comments
Alex S. Brown, PMP (www.alexsbrown.com)
I started managing software development projects in my mid-20s, so I have constantly been "the young boss". At this point I am in my thirties, and I still very often manage people who are older than I am. I look young for my age, so the age difference seems even wider than it is.
One of the most dramatic age differences was a woman who had a son just a few years younger than I was. I had been in the company a couple of years, and she had been there for much longer. She had a reputation for being difficult to deal with, so I was concerned when she was first assigned to my team.
From this situation and many others, I have found that good, solid management techniques work. There is nothing complicated or mysterious here. I spent time getting to know her well. I found out what she enjoyed, and what she did not. We talked about the age difference openly. It wound up that she had no interest in becoming a manager, so she did not resent me in any way. Once we got to know each other, we talked about her reputation for being difficult. She explained what her previous bosses had done to make her work life difficult, and we came to an agreement on how we would best work together. Promotions, training, and career advancement were not great motivators for her; things that did motivate her included time off, flexible work hours, the ability to pick her team members, and flexibility to get work done to her high standards of quality. I treated her with respect, and we got along well. She was able to keep me informed of gossip and rumors that I would not hear about otherwise. I was able to help her avoid the internal politics that she disliked.
Building good relationships take time and mutual respect. Age differences do not change that basic fact. Age differences make it even more important, though, to use solid, respectful management techniques. Older employees will see through any "tricks" you might try. Older employees often have a deep network in the company, and can act against you invisibly. Being more senior in the org chart does not mean you are more powerful. Depending upon the company culture, the quality, depth, and strength of your relationships can be much more powerful than someone's position in the org chart.
You make some good points about the discomfort that can come with age inversion. For me, though, it has become an ordinary part of professional life. At some point I will probably need to get adjusted to the idea of reporting to someone younger than me, but for now, having older people reporting to me is a way of life.
I would add another possible cause of age inversion to your list: young, ambitious people being promoted quickly. I have more kids than most people my age (seven), and it has led me to be more ambitious than most people my age. Given the fact that baby boomers are moving towards retirement age, it seems inevitable that these situations will become more common. People approaching retirement often shy away from management-related positions. It is more hassle and trouble than they want. Many companies have also established high-paying career paths for subject-matter experts who are not managers, reducing the drive for people to take that management position. Given these factors, I think it will be more and more common for people in their 30s and 40s to be managing people in their 50s and 60s.
Thanks for an interesting article.

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