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My boss is much younger than I am and can’t possibly know as much about my work as I do. I am having trouble with our working relationship. How can I best navigate this situation?

Industry Matters Newsletter
Bill Carroll, Carroll Applied Science, L.L.C.

There are three phrases in your question I need to drill down on.  First is “My boss is much younger than I am,” “I am having trouble with our working relationship,” and “…can’t possibly know as much about my work as I do.”

Full disclosure: early in my career I had to manage people my father’s age. Later in my career, I reported to people much younger than I was. Neither has to be a difficult problem with the right attitude and a good understanding of yourself.

Why is your boss’s age relative to yours important? In a well-functioning environment, age shouldn’t matter—only the approach to the job.  And to whom is age important? You or your boss? If your boss is uncomfortable managing someone older, you can easily smooth that situation over with a genial and collaborative manner, letting her know that you’re OK with the relationship. If, on the other hand, you are uncomfortable being managed by someone younger, you need to examine your conscience a little.

Why are you uncomfortable? As we age, everyone looks up one day and notices that the world got younger all of a sudden. That moment for me came on an airplane when every other passenger in a business suit appeared to be ten years younger than me. Our society worships youth; it’s easy to see a younger boss as signifying that the times have passed you by. I won’t deny that I felt that way sometimes. Is that why you are having trouble with your working relationship?

Most likely, your career is fine and the world has not passed you by, but I can’t tell you that—you have to convince yourself that there’s another way of looking at the situation. Your role as a senior contributor should make you confident, not uncomfortable. Instead of thinking of her as young and uninformed, try to think of yourself as seasoned, wise and highly skilled—an elder, if you will. Then continue to be of great service to your boss and to the team. I found this to be a very satisfying role when I was in this circumstance.

Being the boss does not make someone the most competent scientist on the team; generally, it’s just the opposite. Being the boss makes someone a manager who needs to get things done on time, on budget, and with high quality. A boss relies on her team to deliver those goods while she does the downfield blocking with senior management.

With that said, each of us has to prove it on the field every day. If you feel that your previous contributions are not being adequately acknowledged, I’ll need to be direct: What you did previously is important today only to the extent that it helps the team shape the future. There are no laurels to rest on. If you were an All-Star last year, that was last year. We have games to win today.

When you say, “I am having trouble with our working relationship” at the very least you’ve taken ownership as the source of the problem if there is one, and there may not really be. Control what you can control: you. Don’t try to make your boss as knowledgeable about your work as you are. You are the specialist. She is the manager of the team.  

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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