Posted: 24 Jul. 2019 10 min. read

Older and Wiser

How does management style vary with age?

Today’s workforce is more age-diverse than ever before, with some organisations having employees from as many as five generations. A more age-diverse workforce can create an environment rich in experiences, perspectives and skillsets but it can also lead to strained working relationships due to differences in working styles; born from differing expectations, values and demands amongst generations.

The starting point for managing age diversity is to effectively understand cross-age differences in working and management styles. Such an understanding would enable businesses to leverage the benefits, and more effectively manage the challenges of age-related working preferences.

While many researchers have sought to address the question of how management style varies with age, previous findings have been fragmented, and observed differences have often been small. 

Professors Julian Birkinshaw (London Business School), Vittorio D’Amato, Elena Tosca, Francesca Macchi (LIUC Business School at Universita Cattenao), and Business SME James Manktelow (Founder of Mind Tools Ltd) sought to gain more insight on this question, and provide a nuanced perspective on age-related differences in management styles, across five key areas: managing external context, managing internal context, managing people, managing tasks, and managing oneself.

Aim

To analyse whether, and if so how, management styles and practices vary with age.

Method

The researchers surveyed over 10,000 managers aged 21 to 70 across 20 countries and multiple industries to learn about their preferred styles of working.

Respondents were asked to choose the five techniques (from a list of eight to 12) that they consider most important for delivering on five areas of their managerial work: managing external context, managing internal context, managing people, managing tasks, and managing themselves.

Regression analysis was used to analyse the effects of age, controlling for other factors such as organizational seniority, gender, country, and industry sector.

Findings

The researchers found significant differences in management styles across age. Overall, the research suggested that young managers (typically in their 20s and 30s) “took a more self-centered approach”, “preferred concrete management techniques,” and “emphasised self-motivation and self-discipline”. On the other hand, older managers (typically in their 50s and 60s) “favored a more inclusive and collaborative approach,” “relied on more intuitive and holistic techniques,” and “were more reflective”. In particular, the research yielded the following key insights.

  1. Managing the external context: In managing their external context (such as clients and competitors), younger managers highlighted structured approaches such as using effective sales techniques, while older managers preferred more collaborative approaches, such as understanding client needs and goals. Older managers laid more emphasis on understanding their company’s core competencies (55% of older managers said that is important, compared with 34% of younger managers), while younger managers were more focused on the company’s positioning in the marketplace.
  2. Managing the internal context: In managing internal context (such as relationships with other business units), older managers emphasised building coalitions of support and anticipating people’s emotional reactions much more than their younger counterparts (57% versus 34%, and 62% versus 44%, respectively). In contrast, younger managers emphasised activities that would “make a great impression.”
  3. Managing People: In managing people (especially direct reports), delegating decisions and tasks to others was the preferred approach by older managers (62% versus 30%). In developing others, younger managers preferred more technical solutions, such as planning and delivering a training program while older managers favored giving effective feedback.
  4. Managing tasks: In managing tasks (such as decision-making and problem-solving), age-based differences were somewhat smaller than in other areas. All respondents said bringing people together to solve problems is important, but older managers emphasised it more than younger managers (77% versus 59%). On the other hand, younger managers prioritised technical or analytical approaches—such as analysing a process for possible points of failure (51% versus 40%)— more than older managers.
  5. Managing themselves: In managing themselves (including using time effectively and developing skills), younger managers emphasised personal discovery, self-motivation and self-discipline, while older managers were more reflective and placed greater emphasis on learning from setbacks, knowing their own strengths, and how their actions impacts others.


Implications

This research has important insights; both for individuals to help navigate their working relationships, and for organisations to make the most of an age-diverse workforce. 

At an individual level, employees would benefit from understanding how their management styles align to or differ from those of their peers or managers. Being clear that different people have biases to behave in different ways, is the first step to being able to understand the perspectives, priorities and values that may drive the management styles and behaviors of others.

At a team level, age-diverse teams would benefit from establishing a shared way of working - or common ground – enabling them to more effectively work together. By sharing which working styles and techniques they prefer, teams can develop a shared language and perspective, to collaborate more effectively.

At an organisational level, HR managers and leaders would benefit from understanding how management practices and preferences might differ according to age, and tailoring their people-development offerings accordingly. Having a deeper understanding of the types of skills managers across age groups may need to be trained on, would enable organisations to offer more effective people-development programs. 

To read the full article, see: Older and Wiser? How Management Style Varies With Age, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2019 Issue.

For more information, contact Shilpa Didla

Meet our author

Shilpa Didla

Shilpa Didla

Assistant Manager, USI Inclusion

Shilpa is passionate about creating an inclusive and supportive work environment and contributes to D&I initiatives and thought leadership. Her key strengths include qualitative analysis, executive presentations, business writing, and people development.