It’s an awkward experience so relatable — the older employee who works for a younger boss — that Hollywood has made movies about it. Remember Dennis Quaid’s incredulous look at the much younger Topher Grace in the 2004 film “In Good Company,” when the middle-aged ad exec finds his new corporate boss standing in his office? “How old are you?” Quaid’s character asks, dumbfounded.
But it turns out that uneasy feeling isn’t the only problem. A younger boss steering older subordinates may also have an effect on company performance. An academic study recently published online by the Journal of Organizational Psychology surveyed nearly 8,000 employees at 61 German companies and found that at companies with more younger managers of older employees, workers reported 12% more negative emotions on the job. Meanwhile, the companies with more of these negative emotions fared worse when it came to top managers’ reports about financial and organizational performance in the survey.
The paper is a reminder that, despite all the good that merit systems can do when they’re not based on seniority, they’re also not without their downsides. Doing away with age-based promotions helps prevent stagnant hierarchies, frees up fresh talent and reinforces performance over longevity. But it also sets up dynamics between colleagues that are not only uncomfortable for some but also can be detrimental to productivity if not well managed.
That awkward feeling when your boss could be your son’s friend is a phenomenon psychologists call “status incongruence.”
“They contradict common career and status norms,” Florian Kunze, a coauthor of the paper and a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, said in an email. That prompts negative feelings, particularly among the older workers, and “these negative feelings can also spread throughout a company also to employees who are not directly part of the unusual age supervisory relationship,” he says.
It doesn’t help that people working for a younger boss are reminded of these incongruences every workday — and by the person responsible for their livelihood. “When faced with being supervised by a younger person, older employees are forced to recognize their lack of progress,” Kunze and his coauthor wrote in the paper. “Working daily under a younger supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace.”
If people suppress those negative feelings and keep them to themselves, the outcome may be better. Kunze’s paper found just that. The hit to company performance was neutralized in workplaces where employees said the culture prompted people to keep their emotions in check.
Of course, a workplace where people feel they have to suppress their emotions isn’t a great long-term solution — but neither is returning to a seniority-driven promotion scheme. That’s why Kunze and his coauthor suggest that managers invest in training, be more sensitive to these potentially uncomfortable relationships and assess employees’ feelings about such issues more frequently to stay on top of any signs of trouble.
“Recent research has shown that young managers are most successful in these situations if they create a professional distance with the older subordinate and provide autonomy to [them] by setting clear targets and goals,” Kunze said in an email.
It’s an important reminder because the awkward scenario is only likely to grow. Sometime early last year, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest generation in the workforce. Now that there’s more than 53 million of them, more and more of us are going to be working for the under-35 set too.
McGregor writes a column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.