“He’s fresh out of college and has been with the company for less than six months, and I’m supposed to listen to him,” Kris muttered as she shared with me about her struggles and grievances with her new – much younger – boss. “He takes credit for my suggestions and cares very little about my success, yet wants me to turn a project around ASAP? I don’t get it!”

While Kris’s situation features new characters, it’s a scene I’ve seen acted out many times. When the new department head is 5-20 years younger than those who report to him, there can be some dissension, or at least unrest, among the ranks. Egos get bruised, fingers get pointed and teams stop functioning cohesively. The secret to surviving green-behind-the-ears bosses (especially when you’re old enough to be their parent)? Realize it’s not about you and cut them a little slack.

I encouraged Kris, a 55-year-old woman who works for an environmental arm of the government, to think about the situation from a different perspective. “Now, you do realize his actions/reactions have little to do with you, right?” I asked. As she sat with that idea for a few minutes, I encouraged her to consider whether it makes sense that he is trying to prove himself in his new position.

“Yes, of course,” she agreed, “but that’s not how you do it.”

Once we got past the “right” vs. “wrong” of how he was doing it, she was able to see the reality of what he was trying to accomplish. As a result, her compassion and desire to help increased. Next, I asked what difference she would like to make within the organization. She said she wanted to see the new initiatives, which would ultimately make a difference in our world, get implemented more efficiently and effectively. She wanted to see the process for decision-making become easier, because “the layers [of management] make it difficult to get anything done.”

Of course, providing information to her new boss would ultimately help the leadership team see the issues and perhaps eliminate the obstacles. “So, if you feed this young man pertinent information that will ultimately help him look good and fuel your interest in seeing the organization reach its goal, without the need for credit, you could make the difference you’re attempting to make, right?”

“Yes … yes, I guess it would,” she responded after a moment and with some hesitation. “Let me make sure I have this right. You want me to give him as much information as possible, without saying anything or expecting anything in return, and hope that he reaches success?” I confirmed that she had, in fact, understood me perfectly. “But what about me?” she asked.

“What about you?” I responded. “You’re clear about contributing to the bigger vision, so feeding him pertinent information will ultimately help you reach your goal.”

Kris decided to take my advice. Of course, doing what she set out to do is not always easy. I think we all want some sort of appreciation for our contribution, some regular validation. Fortunately, after almost a year of providing information, Kris became her boss’s go-to woman and began seeing the impact of her “silent” influence, which actually wasn’t so silent, as she later realized that people knew who was helping him all along. Most importantly, he was able to make better decisions to benefit the business and was grateful for her support. 

Tips for being led by a young professional: 

  1. Commit. Just as Kris did, get committed to the success of your boss; doing so will only strengthen relationships and provide opportunities. If you cannot commit to his (or her) success, find a new boss.
  2. Share. When your vision is clear, sharing information and contacts doesn’t feel like showing your cards; it feels contributing to your team’s win. When you’re focused on the right or wrong way of leading or being led, you’ll miss valuable opportunities to influence decisions. Share as much and as often as possible, without strings.
  3. Trust. Don`t assume your younger boss doesn`t know what he’s doing, is purposefully trying to make your life miserable and has no interest in leveraging your experience. Instead, give him the benefit of a doubt. Trust that he got this job for a reason and has the ability to learn what he doesn’t know (especially with a good support system in you).
  4. Diplomacy. When your boss is wrong, it’s OK to share your experience to help him see the light, but go about it tactfully, lest you bruise his ego (never good for office politics). First, listen to his agenda and make sure the information you are providing assists him in reaching his goals. Provide information respectfully, in a one-on-one setting and without expectation of anything in return.
  5. Clarity. Feeling bad about being in a role subordinate to someone who was still watching Sesame Street when you started your first job? An understandable reaction, but it won’t get you anywhere. Insecurities come from a fear of not knowing or from low self-esteem. So, first gain clarity on your value within the workforce and to your boss. Once you know your value, you can aim your focus at something that will get you ahead – supporting others in reaching their goals. Increasing your self-esteem comes, in part, from learning new skills, gaining new experiences and contributing to the team. So look for opportunities to grow and learn.

Being led by someone younger and/or less experienced than you can be challenging, especially if your boss forgets to ensure you know just how much he or she appreciates your valuable experience. That said, remember that staying focused on your leader’s success will only add value to your organization’s overall success – yours included.

Offered with respect,

Misti Burmeister, Washington Post best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers