Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I recently accepted a job as a low-level manager (of a team of eight). I'm an outside hire. I have never had a supervisory position before. These problems seem surmountable -- I'm smart and competent and good with people. The biggest issue I'm having is that I'm in my mid-20s, which makes me younger than everyone I'll be managing. Even worse, I'm frequently mistaken for a high school student. I'm worried that no one will take me seriously or listen to me. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything I can do to make my age less obvious?
Well, the biggest thing to know is that most people will take their cues from you. If you seem hesitant or like you feel awkward about the age difference, people will notice it, and it will become an awkward thing for them too. If you act like it's a nonissue, it should become a nonissue to most (or hopefully all) of your staff members. So the key is getting yourself into a frame of mind where you genuinely believe that your age is a nonissue and where you're comfortable with your authority.
If it helps, picture yourself with your own past managers. Imagine one of them acting hesitant or uncertain about her authority, or making it clear that she felt weird that you were older than her. This would make you feel awkward about it too, right? Now imagine that she was instead completely matter-of-fact, betrayed no hint of feeling odd about the age difference, and instead just moved forward and did her job as if ages were irrelevant. You'd likely adopt that attitude pretty quickly too, right?
To help get yourself into this mindset, think about why you were hired. Think about why you'll do the job well. And think about how completely weird it would be to have a manager who seemed nervous about managing -- then force yourself not to do that.
You should also think about how you present yourself. Do you use language, mannerisms, or a tone of voice that unintentionally give off an "I'm young/uncertain/ inexperienced" vibe? Or do you speak with confidence? Are you able to solicit other people's input while being comfortable making a decision of your own at the end of that process? Do you know how to give feedback without sounding nervous or apologetic or like a jerk? Can you admit when you don't know something without worrying you won't look competent? (One good trick: If you've had a manager who has done this stuff well, think about how she operated and model yourself on her.)
And one other thing that's important here: This is your first management position, and you shouldn't wing it. Make a concerted effort to educate yourself about how to manage well. Learn about how to delegate, how to give feedback, how to set goals and hold people accountable to them, how to handle performance problems, how to develop good people, and how to exercise authority without being either an unreasonable tyrant or a wimpy pushover. When people see you executing your job skillfully, they're going to care more about that than what year you were born.
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