The Surprising Ways Management Styles Vary by Age
A new study suggests what older and younger managers can learn from each other
Conversations about generational differences in the workplace remain challenging and too often infused with stereotypes. Older generations sometimes lament what is lost and those junior to them can feel frustrated by the slow pace of change. So a recent MIT Sloan Management Review study of managers was an eye-opener, analyzing how managers across the age spectrum prefer to lead.
The five researchers — of disparate ages — surveyed 10,000 managers between ages 21 and 70 working in multiple industries and in 20 countries. What they found was that older and younger managers have very different views about how to lead others. “Management style varied more with age than with any other characteristic in our survey,” the authors wrote.
For example, younger managers (typically in their 20s and 30s) preferred a more “self-centered approach” while their older counterparts (typically in their 50s and 60s) emphasized “a more inclusive and collaborative approach by building coalitions.”
Strategic Thinking by Older Managers and Younger Managers
Younger and older managers also approached strategic thinking differently: 32% of younger managers placed value on “understanding business models and how they change,” compared to 20% of older ones.
"The data fits a pattern that says as business people become older, more experienced, more mature, their interests shift from narrower commercial concerns to a greater concern for others, and for broader societal interests."
When dealing with peers and subordinates, young managers preferred concrete management techniques, like knowing how to run effective meetings. By contrast, older managers relied more on “more intuitive and holistic techniques,” like developing empathy for others.
Intriguing differences arose when the researchers asked the managers how they managed what’s known as “internal context.”
Here, younger ones tended to engage in activities that helped build their value, such as finding a good mentor, asking for feedback, asserting themselves and seeking recognition for their work. By contrast, older managers were more focused on building rapport and coalitions of support to get things done and “anticipating people’s needs during a change process.”
Different Styles for Managing People
Older and younger managers also demonstrated differences in how they preferred to manage people.
Older managers were more likely to say that “listening carefully and intensely to others” was critical compared to younger respondents. Similarly, older managers believed that “delegating decisions and activities to others” was a key management skill; younger managers revealed a preference for more technical solutions.
Another big difference: Older managers believed it was important to bring people together through brainstorming, for example; younger managers were more likely to prefer structured techniques like analyzing “a process for possible points of failure.”
And when the managers asked how they preferred to manage themselves, older ones were more likely to call “being aware of how your actions impact others” as a key attribute and to value resilience and growing from setbacks; younger managers believed that demonstrating initiative was more important.
In noting that the results identified behavioral differences that may be more attributable to maturation than demographic shifts, London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw, one of the authors, observed that, “The data fits a pattern that says as business people become older, more experienced, more mature, their interests shift from narrower commercial concerns to a greater concern for others, and for broader societal interests.”
Looking at Managers Through a Generational Lens
The findings do invite, however, some consideration of a generational lens as an additional layer of nuance.
In my research studying millennials, Gen Xers and boomers in the workforce, I’ve learned that many young workers grew up with parents, coaches, teachers and tutors who planned and supervised activities for them. With free time a rarity, it’s not surprising that a large number of younger managers would prefer detailed or technical solutions compatible with a structured approach to their management style.
The study’s finding that younger managers prefer measures enhancing their own value seems consistent with advice that many millennials have been given throughout their lives: speak up, find mentors, ask for feedback and seek recognition for your work.
The Workplace Experiences of 'Amy' and 'Matt'
Consider the experience of “Amy,” a recent college graduate in the health care field managed by “Matt,” a young man in his mid-30s. (I interviewed "Amy" in my research and she prefers to keep her real name and "Matt's" name private.) Amy approached her first job out of college with a strong desire to show her resourcefulness in completing assignments so she could receive additional work. Matt, however, was eager to prove himself in his new management role, so he avoided delegating work to others as a way of demonstrating his drive and initiative to those who managed him.
Amy told me she’d regularly and politely request work from Matt, offering to relieve his busy load — to no avail. She also discussed her circumstances with other friends around her age, many experiencing similar challenges.
Replicating the study’s findings, Matt was hyper-focused on his performance as a manager and how he looked to his own bosses. He was less focused on the person he was supposed to be managing.
A Question for Older Managers
But Amy’s experience leads to a question for older managers: Should they do more to help supplement the tendency of younger managers to rely on what they’ve learned in textbooks or at professional conferences? The MIT Sloan study noted the importance of helping “young managers learn and appreciate essential soft skills.”
Some managers have their own frustrations as they acclimate younger workers into the workforce. I recently spoke with “Mary,” an experienced manager who was surprised by the extent to which she found some young hires lacking basic workplace skills.
They had poor phone skills or made errors that should have been caught if they’d double-checked their work, she said.
One young, highly competent employee would never leave her office to check in with Mary. “When I was at that stage of my career,” Mary stated, “I would park myself in my mentor’s office to update her, let her know I am here and make clear that I want to help.”
With her office-bound younger employee, Mary made daily stops to visit and talk about work projects. She realized that some basic skills younger employees lacked could be taught, and appreciated other talents they offered.
The MIT Sloan study demonstrated that younger and older workers bring important differences in management styles that, together, provide a mix of skills that can enrich the workplace. But this research, I believe, also shows that younger managers could benefit significantly from stronger mentorship by older ones.
When older managers impart the skills they’ve have learned through experience — such as collaboration, effective listening and delegation — they have an opportunity to strengthen their legacy and their workplace.