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My direct reports are all older than me and assume I have less knowledge and experience. How can I best navigate this situation and keep morale and engagement high?

Kristin Nuzzio, Group Leader, Formulation Sciences, PPG
Kristin Nuzzio, Group Leader, Formulation Sciences, PPG

This can be a challenging situation, especially as a new manager. Several concepts centering around building trust and understanding strengths can help you to engage with your team members. Strategies used for leading without influence can also be helpful here even though you have a direct reporting structure. 

  • Be authentic: It is important to first self-reflect and understand your own strengths and skills. Don’t try to be what you think a manager is “supposed” to be, assert unnecessary authority, or be someone that you are not. Demonstrate the abilities that led you to your current role, but be honest about areas that you would like to develop further. It will take time to build trust within the team, but you can set the precedent with your own transparency and communicate that you are willing to invest in this effort.
  • Challenge assumptions (on both sides): Incorrect assumptions about experience level, background, and motivations can be damaging to team morale if they are not addressed directly. Acknowledge the limitations of your own knowledge and where members of the team, regardless of experience level, provide value. Don’t assume that experienced team members are experts in every area or aren’t interested in development. Past projects may not be representative of their body of work and interests. Consider constructing a team skills matrix including technical and leadership areas to provide a visual representation of the team’s competencies. You (and the team!) may be surprised with some of the experiences that other associates have had. 
  • Create opportunities for learning: Taking a genuine interest in learning about the activities your team members enjoy doing helps to build trust. Consider using strengths-based assessment tools or asking questions during 1:1 meetings like: what is one area that you are good at that you haven’t had the opportunity to do? From there, facilitate training or shadowing experiences within the team and with associates from other departments. You can also leverage the team skills matrix to design co-mentoring opportunities, where team members can learn from each other. As a manager, you have a unique perspective and can identify strengths in your team members that they may not have recognized before.  

When in doubt, seek out feedback from your direct supervisor or a trusted mentor. They may be aware of other team building resources available within your company. Chances are, they may have had a similar experience when they began leading teams as well.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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