Improve Upside-Down Reporting Relationships

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot

One workplace reporting relationship that used to be fairly rare is older workers reporting to younger managers. This is a growing phenomenon and will become more prevalent, at least until the younger boomers stop working in any form. As boomers transition from leader and top expert roles to new roles that allow the next generations to move up the ladder, we'll see what traditionally have been unconventional structures. 
Though some people deal with it well, in many cases, at best, it's awkward, at least at first. At worst, it has led to lawsuits. But serious tensions and confrontations can be avoided.
Both the younger and the older parties to the relationship can feel uncomfortable. A new young manager may feel insecure and even intimidated. An older team member can be unsure of how to react as well. Having worked extensively with all the generations, I'll offer guidelines for the older subordinate and the younger manager. 

Generational Definitions

Generations are defined by similar formative influences - social, cultural, political, and economic - that exist while individuals of particular birth cohorts are in their adolescent to early adult years. Given that premise, the approximate birth years for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are:

  • Traditionalists: Born between1925 and 1942
  • Baby Boomers: Born between 1943 and 1962
  • Generation X: Born between 1963 and 1978
  • Generation Y/Millennials: Born between 1979 and 1998
Please send your thoughts on generational observations to Phyllis Weiss Haserot at or comment on What has caused you to question or think about observed practices and behaviors differently?
Guidelines for the older subordinate
These tips will help start the relationship off on an even keel and minimize negative emotional energy: 
  • Establish common goals. Focus on the purpose of your work.
  • Be open to new ideas and methods. Don't obsess on differences in how you were taught, what has always served you as the best method, or whether the manager has preconceived notions about how you think and operate.
  • Be generous about giving advice - when asked. Create a nonthreatening environment so you'll be asked for advice. Don't be pedantic about advice and unsolicited opinions.
  • Seek out younger coworkers and learn from them in a mentoring partnership.
  • Find opportunities to disprove myths and perceptions of older workers.
  • Be appreciative of how your young manager supports you and provides tools to allow you to achieve top results.
  • Be clear about preferred communication styles and media and about appropriate boundaries.
  • Identify the younger manager's motivations.
  • Be appreciative of recognition you're given and reciprocate.
Guidelines for the younger manager
The younger manager, though ostensibly in charge, may feel as awkward as the older colleague. Even if not feeling insecure in the role, there are things the younger manager can do to foster a harmonious and productive relationship. Here's some advice to promote trust and cooperation:
  • Keep in mind the purpose of your work. What are the common goals for team members?
  • Show respect for experience (someday you'll be the experienced, older person). Ask for advice, even if you think you know what the best approach is. Invite input and listen.
  • Build allies among the older generations on your team for advice and support.
  • Surmount "just-a-kid" perceptions through your performance and involving others. Use your collaborative skills and don't make a show of coveting praise and credit.
  • Get your older team members what they need to do their jobs well - resources, approvals, etc. (that will help them make you look good).
  • Give seasoned team members freedom, but establish boundaries and communications requirements up front.
  • Identify what motivates each individual and what type of recognition is meaningful to each.
  • Give appropriate credit to others and arrange for their recognition.
A solid and harmonious relationship with older colleagues will pay off in spades for building the younger manager's career. It can provide access to (often high-powered) networks and increase organizational success. Demographics indicate that this is the wave of the future.
What do you think? Please send your thoughts on these observations to me at or comment on 
Help your colleagues: If you liked this article, please share it with your colleagues and friends, Tweet it Retweet it, and "Like" it on your social media. Be sure to include the copyright, © 2011 by Phyllis Weiss Haserot, and 
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About the author:
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the Cross-Generational Voice and the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over twenty years, A special focus is on the profitability of improving workplace inter-generational relations as well as transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners ( Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine and The Marketer’s Handbook of Tips & Checklists (both Thomson Reuters/West 2011). URL:
© 2011 by Phyllis Weiss Haserot


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