Talent Management Column

The Reversal of Authority

With many older workers preferring to cut back on their responsibilities and increase their flexibility by taking lower-level positions, many younger supervisors are dealing with the problem of managing older workers. And often they don't do it well. HR leaders might want to take a lesson from the Marines.

Monday, January 3, 2011
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In the fall I wrote a column about the aging of the U.S. workforce -- indeed in the industrial world -- and the case for hiring older workers. Because that case seems so overwhelming, the explanation as to why older, experienced individuals have such a hard time getting jobs points to discrimination against them.

Since then, I've been deluged by evidence of age discrimination. My favorite examples come from reporters, who are at least covering the issue, but their questions often begin like this: "Let's say you are an employer trying to cut costs so you want to get rid of your older employees. What's the best way to do that?"

How about, not at all?

Not only is it illegal to target older employees, saying that the biggest cost savings come from dumping your oldest employees is quite an assumption. If wages are based on value, then cutting the highest-paid employees also means you are cutting the most-valuable employees.

If it's true that the highest-paid people are the most overpaid (why not start by laying off the CEO?), then it is worth asking why pay is not tied to value.

But the biggest source of age discrimination lies elsewhere -- and that is with quickly advancing, high-flying younger supervisors who are afraid to manage older and more experienced subordinates.

Older workers end up being managed by younger supervisors when the older workers want to do a different job or do what they have been doing in a different way, typically doing less work with a more flexible schedule. Older workers often want to step away from the pressure and stress of management and supervisory positions. So they come back into jobs at a lower level and become the subordinates of other people.

And that's where the problem begins.

The younger supervisors have to agree to hire them, and many younger supervisors find that a difficult thing to do. The reason is that they -- the supervisor -- are uncomfortable having to manage them.

And when they do have older subordinates, there is some evidence indicating that these younger bosses don't do it well. They stay away from them and often let the older workers off the hook with respect to performance.

There are several reasons for that. One is the traditional view about respecting our elders. Would you be OK telling someone as old as your parents what to do? The extent to which this problem exists varies a bit by culture, but it seems to be pretty universal.

Another issue comes from the way many supervisors manage. Too many rely on formal authority -- "because I said so" -- and on carrots and sticks.

No one wants to hear "because I said so" from a manager, and that may be especially so for experienced workers who may have previously held supervisory positions themselves. In addition, the promise of a promotion or the fear of dismissal has less teeth for those who are approaching the end of their careers.

But, as Bill Novelli and I discuss in our book, Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, the bigger problem has to do with the inversion of authority.

People typically think that bosses have more experience than their subordinates and that at least some of their authority comes from that experience. What happens when the person being supervised actually has more experience than the person doing the supervision? How can we boss them around?

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The answer is, we probably can't and we shouldn't try. We need a different model.

The best place to find that model is in the military, where younger supervisors -- in the form of junior officers out of the service academies or ROTC -- are routinely put in charge of older and more experienced sergeants and enlisted personnel.

Those junior officers are now trained to recognize the experience differences and using them.

The most explicit model comes from the Marines, where the junior officers are taught to form a partnership with their experienced subordinates. This is basically a model of employee engagement: We're going to work together to figure out how to get the assignments done, set goals and then execute them. The junior officer is accountable for the overall assignments and holds everyone else accountable for their part.

This is not a radical idea, and most good managers will see this approach of engaging subordinates as a best-practice idea. But given that we do so little training of supervisors now, it is very common for first-time supervisors to have no idea how to do it.

The best advice I've heard about how to help them is to have the younger supervisor first acknowledge the experience of the older subordinates and then ask lots of questions: What do you think about this assignment? What are the problems we're likely to face? What are your recommendations as to how to do it? Nothing engages people more than turning them into a teacher.

And that is a win for both sides.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book, with Bill Novelli, is Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.

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