I’ve always considered the idea of generational workplace tension to be mostly myth. As both a young retail manager and the CEO of a company I founded, I rarely encountered age-related tension. Sure, I’ve dealt with the awkwardness of being the youngest person in the room at a networking event, or the complex interactions that come with being a young woman who has the audacity to go after her goals, but I always saw the generational gap as something that existed only in the minds of people paranoid about not being respected as equals.
That is, until a 60-year-old actress proved me wrong.
During production for a recent film, I found myself working with actresses who were two and three times my age. I had no issue with it, since I’ve always had a results-oriented attitude toward work and don’t place much weight on age. But some people don’t see it that way, and will go to great pains to make their position known.
In the midst of a heated discussion regarding creative direction, an older actress flat-out told me that I owed her more “respect” — and by respect, she meant that I should do as she asked, despite the fact that I was both the creator and executive producer of the project. She said that she was uncomfortable being told what to do by a “baby.”
I sat in complete shock as she hurled insult after insult at me. I tried to explain that as executive producer, my job was to give orders and manage the production. I wanted to gently reiterate the chain of command without being incendiary, but my efforts were mediocre at best.
I later realized that many other people before her probably felt the same way and simply chose not to verbalize it. If you’re a young woman in charge, here are 3 key actions and attitudes you can employ now to successfully handle the delicate egos of your older reports:
- Set the boundaries early and often. In my situation, I had avoided posturing and asserting my position because I felt it was obvious. As the woman who was doing the hiring and firing, I didn’t feel the need to remind anyone of my power. However, I should have gracefully outlined both my position, my responsibilities and my working style so that anyone who took issue with it, regardless of my age, could say so and leave the production if necessary. Be sure to set the boundaries from the beginning so that your older subordinates are clear about what you will and won’t tolerate.
- Let your actions do the talking. As this older woman was stating her reasons for refusing to respect my authority, I felt an impulse to fire back with all the reasons she should. I paused, took a deep breath, and remembered that if I were truly in charge, I should behave like it. I offered her the option of removing herself from the production, which she eventually decided to do. Real power needs no explanation or proof. Speak diplomatically and act deliberately.
- Own your success. As I reflected on the conversation and departure of this cast member, I realized that I had done a less than powerful job of establishing why I was in a position of power. Some older subordinates erroneously assume that a young woman in power has either “slept” her way there or has been handed her position as a favor. As someone who has worked hard to be in a position to produce my own projects, I resented the implication that I was somehow undeserving of my title and authority. You must own your successes and display them proudly. While it’s not necessary to brag or be self-indulgent, it is important to establish that you’re smart, capable, and in charge for good reason.
Power can be intoxicating and divisive. With more Millennial women climbing the ranks in corporate and striking out on their own to start new companies, it’s more important than ever to prevent the generational gap drama before it begins.