Emotional intelligence: 5 tips for reporting to a younger boss

The new boss is how old? Reporting to a younger boss can bring up tough emotions – from jealousy to self-doubt. Here's how to use your EQ to work past that and build a strong relationship
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Kids these days. Always on their phones. Entitled. Narcissistic. And, increasingly, serving as your boss.

Despite how you may feel about the younger generation of employees hanging around your office, they represent the future of leadership. By the end of this year, the number of millennial and Gen Z employees will surpass Baby Boomers, according to Pew Research. More than 90 percent of younger workers aspire to leadership roles. It’s time to move past those unhelpful stereotypes about younger generations and challenge your preconceived notions.

“It’s increasingly common, with Gen X and Gen Y rising up the ranks and dominating the workforce demographics, and older Gen Xers and Baby Boomers becoming the workforce minority, that one of the latter groups will find his or herself being supervised by one of the former,” says Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow. “It’s life, it’s the new reality, and you have to learn to accept it. It’s not going to move in the other direction.”

Employees cite different work ethics, values, leadership styles, and expectations as obstacles when reporting to a younger manager.

That doesn’t mean that it’s without challenges for both sides. Employees cite different work ethics, values, leadership styles, and expectations as obstacles when reporting to a manager younger than they are, according to a survey from Robert Half. And for some, it can just be awkward. A quarter of survey respondents over the age of 35 said they’d be somewhat to very uncomfortable reporting to a younger boss.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Rising above these issues requires an open mind and a good deal of emotional intelligence. Here are a few expert tips:

1. Don't invent problems where they don't exist

If you assume the worst – in any situation – that’s often what you’ll get. The best way to avoid an age difference becoming a problem is to not think about the age difference at all, says Carol Lynn Thistle, managing director at Heller Search Associates, a CIO executive search firm.

“For starters, put the age difference aside,” says Thistle. “Assume the positive first; don’t automatically assume that an age difference presents a problem.”

With any new boss, it’s on you to develop a strong working relationship. Their age should have no impact on how you proceed. Take time to observe their management style, and go from there, suggests Melissa Swift, senior client partner for digital solutions at Korn Ferry.

"Give yourself a pre-determined period to observe their style."

“It’s easy to get preemptively annoyed about being ‘ordered around by a whippersnapper’ or frustrated going into the situation picturing someone who, in your view, will not take an authoritative enough approach,” says Swift. “Give yourself a pre-determined period to observe their style and calibrate how you’re going to work with them.”

2. Lean on your emotional intelligence

Suddenly having to report to someone younger can bring up some tough emotions: inadequacy, jealousy, and self-doubt to name just a few. Emotionally intelligent leaders know how to recognize and diffuse these feelings before they create problems.

Is your gripe about their experience, not age?

"From the perspective of a leader, I’ve found that the grievance of having to report to someone younger has more to do with the amount of work experience one has, rather than age,” says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile. “It is important for leaders in this situation to approach it with a high level of emotional intelligence, and accept that the younger individual was hired for a reason, acknowledging their merits.”

Part of an emotionally intelligent approach is paying attention to how the other person feels, as well, says Malhotra.

“It is important for leaders to show humility and be sensitive to the fact that the new younger boss or manager may also feel uncomfortable or even intimidated by the situation,” he says. “I suggest leaders work on developing a relationship with their new younger higher-ups, building rapport and trust, and ultimately a partnership. Focus on using your voice, your expertise, and your point of view to drive the business. Look at this as any other business relationship, and take it upon yourself to do what is necessary to maintain an effective and productive working relationship, with the end goal of contributing to a successful team and organization."

3. Find opportunities to be a teacher…

Your new younger boss may be well aware of all they don't know. In a survey of millennials, more than 40 percent felt they lacked industry and technical experience needed for leadership. As they ramp up, they will be looking to you for help.

“It is important to remember that these young emerging leaders are more than likely eager and willing to accept advice from anyone on the team,” says Malhotra.

“Be supportive,” says Thistle. “Think about the ways you can share knowledge and experience from your extensive career that will help your new manager.”

4. … and also a student

What can someone 10, 15, or even 20 years your junior teach you? Plenty. The world of work is changing. Those who have grown up with digital technologies at their fingertips see and approach that world differently. If you do not constantly seek to learn, you will fall behind.

"Every person can learn and teach, regardless of their age.”

“Those who are younger than you probably grew up and formed their identity during a different era than you and therefore bring a different lens and perspective to how they see the world,” says Azulay. “They may offer a fresh, different, and new way to approach existing challenges. Perhaps they see ways to enhance or streamline processes, try new technologies and tools, and embrace a different and innovative new approach than previously used. Every person can learn and teach, regardless of their age.”

While age does come with experience and wisdom, youth brings its own equally important traits, says transformation consultant Jeff Skipper. “Our attitudes and perspectives are shaped by the company we keep. People often ‘act the age’ of those around them. When youth brings energy and vigor, we can choose to let that rub off on us. It’s OK to get a bit swept up,” says Skipper.

[ Read also: Millennials vs. Boomers: 5 ways to end bickering and ensure knowledge transfer. ]

5. When it comes to respect, you get what you give

At the end of the day, your boss is someone who can influence your career and make your day-to-day work life either enjoyable or unbearable. It’s in your best interest to get over the awkwardness and make the best of your new reality. Empathy and respect can ease the path forward.

“It can be strange to think of a younger person as your boss, so broaden your thinking to envision yourself and your boss as a team that has come together to provide stakeholders with a balanced array of capabilities,” says Swift. “Make a point of learning their journey and sharing yours. Sharing how you’ve gotten to the place you’re both at builds empathy – and helps you understand your boss’s frame of reference.”

“If you offer respect and trust, the contagion effect will be on your side, and they will likely reciprocate,” adds Azulay. “If you offer suspicion and standoffishness or resistance, the contagion effect will work equally well, most likely.”

[ Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.