Young boss employs tact with older

Dear Joan:
I have recently been hired to manage a production facility. The employees are a group of fifty women who are mostly over the age of thirty-five. 35% of the women are over the age of fifty. They are a close knit group.

I happen to be 23 years old and have a college degree. None of these women have a college degree and many of them do not even have a high school education. My problem is that these women hate me. They resent my college education and even more, resent working for someone so young. These women harass and smart off to me. They do not do what I ask them to do. In fact, I believe, although I cannot prove it, that they have sabotaged some of the work I have done. What should I do to get these women to listen to me and maybe even to respect me?

You are certainly in a rough spot but you are definitely not helpless. Unfortunately, you will need to rely on your positional power until you can earn their respect as a leader. Whether or not they resent your education or your age, you all have a job to do and they must realize you will not be pushed around.

Your first stop will be your boss's office. Tell him or her exactly what you have seen happen. Under no circumstances are you to say "they hate me" or "they don't listen to me." Instead, tell your boss you have an issue that must be resolved in order for you to be effective and you will need his support.

Describe the exact behavior you have observed. Use direct quotes and explain specifics. Be ready to tell him or her how you have handled these incidents (leave your emotions out of it). Ask for more history on this group: what happened before you arrived, who the informal leaders are, what kind of bosses they had in the past. Chances are, this situation won't come as a surprise to your boss.

Next, ask your boss if he will support you if you are forced to discipline an employee. Ask for the step-by-step procedure that is typically followed. For instance, if an employee is insubordinate-even after sufficient warning- are you in a position to fire her? If an employee complains to your boss about you, will he or she encourage them to work it out with you rather than take sides?

Outline a plan you will use to attack this problem and get your boss's buy-in before you start. You are probably feeling like a lamb thrown to the wolves and fifty closely-knit people is quite a large pack to face. Because of this, identify the key troublemakers and set up a one- on- one meeting with each of them.

In this meeting you will do no pleading for cooperation. Instead, you will be calm, fair and firm. Come straight to the point and describe EXACTLY what you have seen the person say or do that is a problem. Do NOT talk about how lousy you feel about it. Rather, talk about the effect on the work and the rest of the work group.

Ask that person what the problem is and listen empathetically ("I can understand why you might find it difficult to report to someone who doesn't know as much as you do about your job and has come in from the outside. I would probably find that tough, too. However, we do need to work together to get the job done and I'm hoping I can count on you to be a team player.")

Be very direct about what your expectations are, "so you understand what is expected in the future." (For example, mutual respect, tasks will be completed accurately, if unclear about something, ask about it, etc.)

At the end of each discussion with these problem people, ask if they understand and agree to the expectations. Ask each one if there is something they would like you to do that would make their jobs easier. Only agree to reasonable requests but be as expansive as possible. Don't be too quick to assume it's your education and age they resent. Perhaps you are coming on too strong in an attempt to show them who's boss or ignoring their years of experience and issuing inappropriate orders without involving them.

At the same time, target the employees who are working hard and doing an excellent job. Make it a point to talk to them and praise them for the fine work they are doing and ask them for any ideas they have to improve things. Implement as many as you possibly can-and as visibly as you can. Try to find ways to enrich their jobs. Perhaps they can train others, lead a tour of outsiders through the plant, cross-train on another job, lead a problem solving group of volunteers on a specific production problem...anything that will show you are willing to recognize and reward positive leaders. Jump on any chance to praise a troublemaker but only give praise that is honestly earned.

A ringleader will probably test you. Be prepared for it. If someone ignores you or is insubordinate call them in to your office and explain the consequences of repeating the behavior. If it means they could lose their job, say so and write it in memo form and give a copy of your discussion summary to the employee, with a copy to your boss.

You will earn your employees respect if you set fair expectations, enforce them when you must, listen to their ideas, and above all, treat them with respect, too.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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