Older and Wiser? How Management Style Varies With Age

In recent years, one of the most profound changes in the workplace has been the increase in age diversity. Large organizations have employees from as many as five generations. Low inflation, low interest rates, and low savings rates have resulted in longer working lives, with many people working into their 70s and beyond. Millions of people are also living longer than ever — with growing numbers in developed countries expected to reach their 100th birthday.1

Age diversity, like other forms of diversity, brings significant benefits to the organizations that embrace it. But it also creates challenges. Different generations have their own expectations and demands, and working relationships can become strained. It’s not always easy to report to someone who is significantly older or younger than you are. Prejudice and stereotyping can creep in, as well, when the differences aren’t properly managed.2

The starting point for managing age diversity effectively is to develop a basic understanding of cross-age differences in working and management styles. How do these styles vary with age? Many researchers have addressed aspects of this question (see “Why Does Age Matter?”), but the findings are fragmented and the observed differences are often small.3 Books and articles exploring intergenerational differences claim that members of the millennial generation (individuals born between 1981 and 1996) are more socially conscious and less loyal to their employers than are members of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980). But there is very little in the academic literature to support this generational view, either theoretically or empirically.4

For more insight, we surveyed more than 10,000 managers ages 21 to 70 across multiple industry sectors in an effort to learn about their preferred styles of working. By asking them to identify the techniques and tools they consider most important in several areas of management, we discovered significant differences across ages that have eluded most prior research in this genre. (See “About the Research.”)

We found that management style varied more with age than with any other characteristic in our survey. Although other factors, such as position in an organization and gender, were also important, we were both interested and surprised to see how influential age differences were.

In managing their situational context — their relationships with internal and external stakeholders — young managers (typically in their 20s and 30s) took a more self-centered approach. For example, they put a lot of stock in making a good first impression and asserting themselves. Older managers (typically in their 50s and 60s) favored a more inclusive and collaborative approach by building coalitions, for example, and having rapport with others.5 In their dealings with peers and subordinates, young managers preferred concrete management techniques, such as knowing how to run an effective meeting; older ones relied on more intuitive and holistic techniques, such as developing empathy for others. In managing themselves, young managers paid more attention to personal discovery, emphasizing self-motivation and self-discipline. In contrast, older respondents were more reflective and placed greater weight on learning from setbacks and knowing their own strengths. (See “Key Differences Between Younger and Older Managers.”)

What are the implications of these findings? Given that our data was collected at a single point in time, we are reluctant to attribute the differences to any one causal factor, such as biological age, job experience, or generational cohort; after all, these factors tend to correlate tightly with one another. Nevertheless, we see benefits in understanding different age-related styles and how they might present challenges in an organization.

For those responsible for managing managers, our framework can be useful for planning development activities and assigning people to jobs and projects in a more thoughtful and strategic way. At an individual or team level, the framework may help people understand how their management styles align with those of their peers or boss. Being attuned to style differences can make it easier for individuals to navigate their working relationships.

Our research also challenges certain stereotypes and myths in the workplace. For example, some books about the millennial generation argue that younger employees are more purpose-driven or less traditionally career-minded than older employees.6 However, this isn’t borne out by our data, which suggests that older managers put greater emphasis on purpose than younger ones. Our findings also push back on the implicit ageism in today’s workplace — a tendency to favor tech-savvy younger employees at the expense of older workers.7 Based on our surveys, we came to see age differences in a new light. Indeed, as artificial intelligence leads to the automation of many routine and technical activities, we believe there will be a premium on managers — in many cases, older managers — who have cultivated innately human qualities such as judgment, intuition, and an ability to reflect. To the extent that experienced managers are also able to keep up with advances in technology, those human qualities should stand them in good stead in the years ahead.

Style Differences in Five Critical Areas

Building on prior studies, we identified five categories of activities that all managers must attend to in their work8: (1) managing external context, such as customers and competitors; (2) managing internal context, such as relationships with other business units; (3) managing people, especially those reporting directly to you; (4) managing tasks, such as decision-making and problem-solving; and (5) managing yourself, including using time effectively and developing skills.9

Below we describe each of these areas, focusing on the techniques and abilities10 where individuals differed significantly according to age.

1. Managing external context. Managing the external context (everything outside the boundaries of the organization) includes developing an understanding of the operating environment, thinking strategically about the company’s competitive advantage, and learning to work with stakeholders — especially customers and clients.

Our study yielded some useful insights into how managers of different ages interpret and respond to their external environment. Take strategic thinking, for example. Whereas 32% of young managers said they value understanding business models and how they change, only 20% of older managers indicated the same. Older managers put more emphasis on understanding their company’s core competencies; 55% of them said that is important, compared with 34% of younger managers. We saw a similar breakdown in making sense of the market: Understanding the product life cycle was identified as important more often by younger managers than by older managers (30% versus 15%). However, analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats was cited more often by older managers (62% versus 52%).

As for relations with external customers and clients, structured approaches, such as using effective sales techniques, appealed more to younger managers; more collaborative approaches, such as influencing a client by understanding them and helping them to meet their objectives, were cited more often by older managers.

While some of the differences may be linked to fads (for example, business-model thinking has become extremely popular in recent years), the results taken together suggest a fundamental difference between age groups. On balance, we found that older managers put greater emphasis on core competencies, customer relationships, and other big-picture factors central to a company’s identity, while younger managers were more focused on the company’s positioning in its competitive marketplace.

2. Managing internal context. Managing the internal context refers to the way people get things done in an organization, including managing up and across, communicating effectively, and making change happen. The statistical analysis shows that the differences between how younger and older managers operate in this area of management are particularly stark.

While we found some techniques — such as asking for feedback, networking, and understanding how others see you — were valued equally across ages, we saw big differences in other areas. For example, older managers emphasized building coalitions among peers to get things done and anticipating people’s emotional reactions during a change process much more than their younger counterparts (57% versus 34%, and 62% versus 44%, respectively). Younger managers, for their part, placed more emphasis on increasing their influence by finding a good mentor, for instance.

With regard to internal communication, the most important factor cited across the board was understanding the key principles of good communicating, but older managers put more weight on it than younger managers. In contrast, younger managers put more emphasis on techniques that could raise their own profiles, such as making a great first impression.

Overall, young managers looked for ways to build value for themselves in their interactions with colleagues. They emphasized activities such as asking for feedback, asserting themselves, and getting recognized for what they do. Older managers, who generally had more experience and more seniority, operated in a different way. They were more oriented toward collaboration: building rapport, building coalitions of support, and anticipating problems and concerns.

3. Managing people. The most effective managers are those who help other people do their best work. They tend to have a deep awareness of their employees’ skills, interests, and expectations. One of the tools they rely on is listening carefully and intensely to others. Although older and younger managers alike said they recognize the value of this activity, a higher percentage of older managers viewed it as critical (73% versus 57% of younger managers). Older managers also emphasized developing empathy for others. These techniques stood in contrast to the more narrowly defined aspects of managing others that younger managers relied on. For example, avoiding common leadership mistakes like setting a bad example was favored more by younger managers than older ones (40% versus 21%).

In terms of getting the best out of one’s team, the contrast between older and younger managers was even more pronounced. Delegating decisions and activities to others, often considered by management experts as one of the key skills in managing others,11 was chosen by 62% of older managers but just 30% of younger managers. In fact, this was one of the most notable gaps in our entire study. We also saw notable differences in how people approached developing others. Younger managers tended to be much more comfortable with technical solutions, such as planning and delivering a training program. Older managers favored more personal methods, such as giving effective feedback.

These findings are consistent with the argument that younger managers gravitate toward skills and techniques they might have picked up in business school or corporate training programs. It takes many jobs working as a manager to learn more intuitive techniques that are based on experience and judgment.12

This leads us to an important point. As academics working in business schools, we try to persuade students that “the soft stuff matters,” and we like to think that students agree (intellectually at least). Yet, when they enter the workplace, many young managers still gravitate toward technical approaches. Perhaps they see these techniques as more important or easier to use — either way, they are loathe to give up on such tools until they have seen their limitations. By definition, we can’t teach experience in the classroom. But it’s worth considering how else we can help young managers learn and appreciate essential soft skills.

4. Managing tasks. In addition to the people-focused aspects of management, we also studied the task-based side: decision-making, problem-solving, project oversight, and fostering of creativity. These topics are more closely aligned with the structured frameworks and courses that managers are often exposed to at the start of their careers. As a result, age-based differences were somewhat smaller here than in other areas, with some exceptions noted below.13

In terms of problem-solving and decision-making techniques, all respondents said bringing people together to solve problems is important, but older managers placed a higher value on this activity than younger managers (77% versus 59%). In contrast, younger managers prioritized technical or analytical approaches — such as analyzing a process for possible points of failure (51% versus 40%) and analyzing systematically what could go wrong with a decision (56% versus 49%) — more than older managers.

As for running projects efficiently, there was broad agreement in the value of selecting targets using key performance indicators, but we found big disparities in how older and younger managers saw other techniques. For example, older managers favored conducting post-completion project reviews, while younger managers were more oriented toward newer techniques, such as understanding and using agile and sprint project management methodologies.

Finally, the approaches managers favored for encouraging creativity in the workplace varied significantly based on age. Our findings show that generating many ideas using free association (brainstorming), while popular across the board, was especially popular with older managers, while innovating by studying people’s day-to-day use of products had greater appeal with younger managers.

Overall, older managers tended to favor approaches that consider the views of many people. At least some of the techniques preferred by younger managers (for example, agile and scrum) have gained popularity in the past 15 years or so, suggesting that younger managers are more closely attuned to leading-edge ideas discussed in management journals and at conferences.

5. Managing yourself. Our findings support the view that understanding oneself is essential to becoming an effective manager. Respondents of all ages value self-management techniques. But true to form, they focused on different ones in the survey. Being aware of how your actions impact others was identified as a key attribute by 71% of older managers, though that figure drops to 46% for younger managers. In contrast, younger managers said understanding and improving self-motivation is more important.

Although time management (specifically, prioritizing tasks effectively) was seen as important by every age group in the survey, its importance increased with age. As for dealing with change, older managers placed high value on developing resilience, overcoming and growing from setbacks, while showing high levels of initiative was seen as more important by younger respondents.

Although we recognize that other perspectives may also be valid, one way of interpreting this data is through the lens of increasing personal maturity.14 This perspective suggests that managers in their 20s and 30s are on a journey of personal discovery, learning through trial and error and self-analysis. As they become older and more experienced, they understand themselves better and become more resilient and better able to prioritize. Eventually, they reach a stage where the emphasis is on relationships with others and an acceptance of who they are.

Recommendations for Managers

Our findings are consistent with many preconceptions about how management style might vary by age. But by pulling the patterns together systematically, we offer a fresh way of looking at an old question, while giving greater legitimacy, we hope, to conversations about age-related differences that are sometimes considered taboo.

Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that differences by age, though easy to measure, are much more difficult to interpret. Life experiences, formative upbringings, and career trajectories may all play a part in shaping management styles — and those factors are all, to some extent, related to age. Therefore, a discussion of why the differences occur has to recognize that causal explanations are complex and hard to resolve. So how can the observed patterns be applied? We offer three recommendations.

Know yourself and the individuals you work with closely. Everyone has subconscious biases, and it is useful to be clear about what they might be so you can understand the perspectives of your colleagues and the managers you work with. It’s particularly useful to compare your management style with that of your boss so you can see things from her perspective — to understand her priorities, the types of behaviors she values, and the work outcomes she cares about most. Many ambitious young managers have seen their progress stall when they fail to get on their boss’s wavelength. For example, one younger manager we spoke with during our research was very hands-on with his team because he wanted to demonstrate that he was in control. He didn’t understand his older boss’s insistence that he delegate more authority to team members. The younger manager thought his boss was doubting his competence when, in fact, they had differing views on the importance of delegation.

Work with your team to develop a shared perspective. For age-diverse teams to work effectively, they need to establish common ground that mitigates differences in style — a shared point of view or way of working that enables team members to coordinate and pick up on one another’s tasks. One point that emerged in our study was the variety of tools and techniques people use to pursue the same objectives. So it’s good practice for team members to share which techniques they prefer and why. Through these discussions, teams can develop a shared language and perspective that helps individual members expand their notion of which techniques work and become more effective collaborators.

Make the most of your organization’s age diversity. Finally, age diversity provides substantial opportunities for organizations to ramp up their people development efforts. Most first-time managers struggle with aspects of their role, and they rarely get the coaching or training they need. Our framework provides a way to think about professional development and the types of skills young managers may need to work on in order to grow.

But younger managers aren’t the only ones in need of support. Senior managers often remain in their roles for long stretches of time and many need help figuring out how to make contributions going forward and how to avoid the stigma that sometimes accompanies age in the workplace.15 Our findings suggest that older managers can continue to have important roles to play — for example, on projects that require greater collaboration across functions or business units, or in complex negotiations with external parties. Qualities that many older managers possess — being reflective, intuitive, savvy, holistic, and inclusive — are also, it’s worth noting, missing from even the most intelligent machines. These are characteristics that organizations will need to emphasize more and more in the hiring and development of employees in an increasingly AI-driven workplace.

Diversity in the workplace is an important issue today, and while gender and ethnicity receive much of the attention, the opportunities to get more value out of an age-diverse workforce are enormous, especially as more and more people work later in their lives. To avoid older or younger workers being stereotyped, it helps to have a systematic way of looking at how management styles vary among different age groups. This will enable organizations to capitalize on the strengths of each age group and compensate for the weaknesses.



* This article was originally published here

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