Young bosses make for a less productive work environment: study

A recent study out of Germany shows that older employees work less effectively when managed by a younger boss. Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Gone are the days when workplace seniority was meted out according to age. Now, with millennials accounting for 37 per cent of the workforce in Canada, managers and supervisors look more like Peter Parker than Mr. Jameson.

And while all signs point to a merit-based system (rather than one that promotes based on years put in at the company), the discrepancy in age between a younger boss and older employee can have negative effects on productivity. Psychologists call the phenomenon “status incongruence” and it can wreck havoc on both sides of the spectrum.

READ MORE: The #1 reason employees quit and 6 factors that fuel their happiness

In a study published in the Journal of Organizational Psychology, researchers found that of 8,000 workers surveyed in 61 companies in Germany, older employees reported 12 per cent more negative emotions on the job. Furthermore, those companies performed worse overall according to superiors’ reports regarding financial and organizational performance.

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“When faced with being supervised by a younger person, older employees are forced to recognize their lack of progress,” study co-authors Florian Kunze and Jochen Menges, wrote in the paper. “Working daily under a younger supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace.” 

The average age difference was 7.15 years, Kunze says, and he found that the larger the age gap between boss and employee, the more negative emotions were expressed.

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“These findings are based on a general statement, we did not find any differences between jobs or industries,” Kunze says. “But they only pertain to calendar age. We also controlled for company tenure, which does not have an effect.”

The study did find, however, that in workplaces where employees stifled their negative emotions and kept to themselves, company performance was not affected.

READ MORE: Canadian millennials believe they have it tougher than past generations: poll

But a workplace where employees are not allowed to express their emotions isn’t ideal, either. The researchers suggest managers invest in training and be more sensitive to coworkers who might feel slighted or intimidated by the age gap.

Both younger managers and older employees need to slightly rejig their approach to create a harmonious work environment. Here are some tips for both camps.

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Younger managers

  • Be respectful: Express an interest in your employee and ask them what they look for in a good manager. Also, don’t assume just because your employee is older they’re not tech savvy.
  • Learn from them: If you’re new, your direct reports can guide you through the processes of the company. Older employees in particular are well versed in the company history, what has worked in the past and what clients want.
  • Be a boss: You may shy away from correcting or confronting an older employee who isn’t doing their job well, but by letting them slide you’re putting the entire team in jeopardy. Be firm and respectful, but don’t be afraid to broach the subject.

Older employees

  • Don’t fight changes: If your new manager prefers a style of communication you’re not accustomed to — instant messaging or texting, for example — don’t push back with comments like, “this isn’t how we do things here.” Learn to adapt and show that you’re willing to move forward.
  • Look at the bigger picture: You’ve put in a lot of time at your company, there’s no sense in letting your work suffer because you don’t like having a younger boss. Continue to contribute in a positive manner and you will be rewarded.
  • Emphasize your experience: You have undoubtedly accrued valuable experience in your years on the job and that’s helpful information to everyone. Feel free to offer suggestions on how to make the business more efficient or effective, and take on a mentorship role with younger coworkers.

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