Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 44;   October 29, 2003:

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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

The Great WallDevious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II
While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Here's Part II of a series exploring the risks of these tactics.
Muhammad Ali in 1967Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010Managing Non-Content Risks: II
When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
Todd Park, United States Chief Technology OfficerProjects as Proxy Targets: II
Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins, some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
Ross Marshall and Don Pugh at the kickoff meeting for the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) at Tinker Air Force BaseDeep Trouble and Getting Deeper
Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.

See also Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tennis balls on a tennis court. Your fitness program can be a part of your job search.Coming July 28: Be Choosier About Job Offers: II
An unfortunate outcome of job searches occurs when a job seeker feels forced to accept an offer that isn't a good fit. Sometimes financial pressures are so severe that the seeker has little choice. But financial pressures are partly perceptual. Here's how to manage feeling that pressure. Available here and by RSS on July 28.
A beach at sunsetAnd on August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.