Nano Tools for Leaders III

In Executive Education, Leadership, Nano Tools, Wharton on October 28, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Managing the Older Worker

Nano Tools for Leaders® are fast, effective leadership tools that you can learn and start using in less than 15 minutes — with the potential to significantly impact your success as a leader and the engagement and productivity of the people you lead.

Contributor: Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Human Resources.

The Goal:

Maximize the use and performance of older workers.

Nano Tool:

Older workers (defined in the United States as 55+) are a rapidly growing segment of the workforce, and research shows that their job performance is superior in nearly every aspect to that of younger cohorts. They offer the “just in time” skills employers say they want and are willing to work the flexible schedules modern businesses require.

Yet this older workforce poses a unique challenge for younger supervisors, who have difficulty handling subordinates with more experience than the supervisors. This challenge translates into management problems as well as a resistance to hiring older workers. The goal is to develop a new way to manage older workers that eliminates these challenges.

How It Works:

  • The military, and especially the Marine Corps, has long recognized the challenges of having younger officers in charge of older, more experienced enlisted troops. They know that, even in their highly regimented environment, “command and control” does not work. The Marines tell their new lieutenants to form a partnership with their sergeants and work together to make decisions. This partnership approach also works well with older workers in the business world.
  • Leading companies in Singapore offer training programs to help manage the expectations of older workers (you have to take orders) and younger supervisors (you have to manage differently). Knowing the expectations, opportunities, and pitfalls can make a major difference in the success rates of the new hires.
  • Companies such as Pitney Bowes, who recognize older workers’ experience and higher productivity, are taking advantage by targeting their hiring at them. Today, their average new hire is 55 years old.

Action Steps:

  1. Recognize the problem:  Supervisors must understand that more experienced subordinates may have a problem being supervised by someone with less experience, and it is not credible to manage such employees with a dictatorial (“because I said so” or “because I know better”) approach.
  2. Acknowledge the expertise of older subordinates: Don’t assume. The supervisor should be direct, saying, “I know you have a lot of experience in this area, and we want to use that experience.”
  3. Engage the older subordinates in defining and solving problems: Ask them to review the pro’s and con’s of potential decisions, or to anticipate likely scenarios when you’re dealing with uncertain situations. They are likely to respond with unique ideas and perspectives – which help reduce the potential risks.
  4. Overcome biases in supervision: Younger supervisors tend to give lower appraisals to older subordinates independent of the quality of their work. They also are less likely to recognize when training would improve the performance of older as compared to younger subordinates. Knowing these natural (often unconscious) biases can help younger leaders be fairer in their management practices.
  5. Manage follow-up:  Experienced subordinates still need to be managed, yet evidence suggests that younger supervisors are reluctant to do so. Supervisors should actively plan to provide praise and constructive feedback. Set goals collaboratively and plan for regular feedback. Acknowledge that everyone appreciates praise, and everyone must be held accountable when performance is below standard.

Share Your Best Practices:

Do you have a best practice for effective communication? If so, please share it by commenting on this post.  Brought to you by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Additional Resources:

About Nano Tools:

Nano Tools for Leaders® was conceived and developed by Deb Giffen, MCC, Director of Innovative Learning Solutions at Wharton Executive Education. It is jointly sponsored by Wharton Executive Education and Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, Wharton Professor of Management Michael Useem, Director. Nano Tools Academic Director, Professor Adam Grant.

Click the Red Response Box below to leave your best practices and comments.


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