Thursday, December 22, 2016

Upending a Social Hierarchy

Social hierarchies belong to the natural order. Relations between children and their parents are hierarchical. Children depend on their parents. They look up to their parents and rely on their parents. They often respect and even venerate their parents. And let’s not forget: they are in debt to their parents.

For their part, parents should show benevolence toward their children. They ought not to look down on their children, to make themselves feel big at their children’s expense.

A child is not dependent because he has done or not done something. He is dependent because he is younger, less experienced, less competent  and often weaker.

Children emulate their parents because they want to become like their parents. They want to grow up and become competent, functioning adults. Thus, they copy the habits they see in people who are competent, functioning adults. They respect their parents for having grown into their adult roles.

Children are naturally inclined to emulate their betters. It might be their parents, but it might also be a teacher or a mentor. They will even emulate people of dubious character if those people are higher up on a social hierarchy.

As it happens, most boys emulate their fathers while most girls emulate their mothers. Of late, girls have been known to prefer emulating their fathers, but precious few boys want to grow up to become like their mothers. This even pertains when said mother is a corporate executive or an important public official. Go figure.

But, what happens when the roles are reversed? What happens in a business when the boss is younger than his staff? A recent study has shown that the role reversal creates problems. According to a Wall Street Journal report, putting  younger people in charge of older people demoralizes the older employees and compromises worker productivity.

The Journal reports on a study performed in Germany:

A young boss can reduce an older employee’s happiness—and may lead to poor company performance.

A recent study of nearly 8,000 employees at 61 German companies found that workers at firms with managers younger than themselves reported more negative emotions, such as anger and fear, than those with older managers.

Furthermore, that younger boss-older worker dynamic may indirectly lead to worse organizational performance, the findings suggest. Companies where workers expressed more negative emotions fared 9% worse in several financial and productivity measures than firms where workers had few negative emotions, according to the research, which was published in the Journal of Organizational Psychology.

One questions the use of the notion of “happiness” in the first paragraph. The issue is morale and motivation, not the gauzy notion of happiness.

Older workers who are managed by younger bosses become demoralized and resentful… as though their advanced age and greater experience is not being respected.

If you have spent a lifetime doing a job, accumulating wisdom and demonstrating loyalty to the company, you are not going to be thrilled to be passed over for a promotion in favor of a young hotshot just out of business school. And you are not going to be motivated to do your best work for him. Why, after all, should you set out to make him look good? It might not even be a conscious choice.

Nowadays, corporate managers have reached a new stage of enlightenment and have overthrown the past system that valued seniority. It's not always a good thing. It does not take too many disgruntled employees to create a bad work environment. Negative emotions are contagious.

The Journal continues:

It only takes a few extreme cases to trigger workers’ emotions. A single 25-year-old manager leading a 60-year-old subordinate can spread negativity through an entire company in what Dr. Kunze calls “emotional contagion.”

These “age-inverse” supervisory relationships, in which a younger boss leads an older employee, have grown more common, says Dr. Kunze. That’s because of increasing retirement ages, a reduction in mandatory retirement programs and a move toward performance-based hierarchies rather than seniority-based career ladders, he says.

Surely, technology has something to do with this. As companies rely more on technology they will naturally promote people who have more facility with the new systems. And these people will usually be younger and more tech-savvy.

Of course, if the younger manager really does know a great deal more about systems, the chances are better than older employees will respect him. Mark Zuckerberg is 32. His record of achievement commands respect, even among those who are older.

It is nice to divide it up in to younger and older, but, to make a reasoned judgment we need to know more about the nature of the jobs and the necessary qualifications.

When they address the question of how to solve the problem, researchers recommend counseling and coaching. They also suggest, properly, that younger managers should allow older staff members more autonomy. Setting guidelines and allowing the older employee to find a way to accomplish them.

The study does not address other obvious problems. What happens if the younger manager is female while the older employees are male? Will this situation also cause resentments and make it more difficult for the manager to manage. Will she have more difficulty managing when male subordinates refuse to emulate her good work habits?

And how is the situation changed when the older employees believe that the younger manager has been promoted for reasons of diversity, not for reasons of merit. What happens when the manager has gotten his job because he’s the boss’s son?

The ability to lead involves the ability to command respect. No one commands respect without having earned it. 


Dennis said...

For your edification:

Sam L. said...

If the young new boss calls in the older employees one by one, and tells them he/she values their experience, asks what he/she can do to help them do their jobs easier and better, and does those things, then that ought to help a lot.

Anonymous said...

Of course, there's also a problem with looking younger then others in your field. At a previous job I worked with another guy who was a whopping 2 years older then me- I was 45. Talking with one of the secretaries one day I discovered everyone thought I was 35 or so and he was near 60 and ready to retire. The powers that be always looked at him for answers, although in reality he had less time in the field then I had. But he looked like he had more experience.

I know others who've had the same problem in operations and maintenance fields. Managers expect more experienced people to look older. When often older looking people simply have poorer lifestyle choices aging them prematurely.