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Managing employees who are smarter than you

30 October 2019

You just started a new Supervisor position, and your sitting in a meeting, and someone asks you a question and your scrambling for an answer. Then, one of your new employees speaks up and answers the question and you shrink back in your seat. When you start a new role and manage employees who have more experience than you do, it can be natural to feel inferior. However, there are ways to grow the work relationship so your able to retain employees when changes in management happens.

Remember they selected you as the Manager 

There is a balance to strike with this first point, however, it is good to remember, you're in this position because you're the best suited for it. They selected you out of all the other candidates. Remember your strengths and how they can benefit your team and the company. If you have confidence, you will be able to be the leader your team needs. As leaders, we want to be liked, but we also want to be respected. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find the right balance to build an environment that maximizes productivity and motivation with more experienced employees, and to not come off as patronizing when giving feedback and structure. You can start out building your relationship by being confident in the skills you are bringing, but also acknowledging and valuing the knowledge and skills of those more experienced. Also, take competitiveness off the table. There can be a tendency for a competitive spirit to manifest if you feel you must “prove” that you deserve the position. Try and be a supporter of the experienced and let them know you are on their side and value their expertise. This will help to find the right balance and decrease competition.

Set clear and measurable goals and defer to their expertise

Try to set clear goals and expectations, and allow the employee to have input about what these are. This will help you to leave all bias at the door. If clear and measurable goals are set, it will take away any room for indications of emotional bias or judgement (real or perceived) that could tear down the relationship. You will be able to stick to facts, and there will be fairness and no debate when it comes to performance. This will help build the relationship so that employees are more comfortable and feel that they have a voice in what their work looks like.  

When possible, make it a point to defer to your employee’s expertise and experience on projects within the team. Be mindful of being generous and respectful when you are doing this so that no one feels slighted. Utilizing the knowledge and expertise that employees have will make them feel valued and appreciated for their work. It can make a big difference between creating barriers and breaking down barriers to a more collaborate and cohesive relationship between you and your more experienced employees. Give them public recognition for all they add to the team.

Be honest about what you don't know

Being willing to be honest about what you don’t know, could help build trust, and avoid unnecessary mistakes that could result from misplaced egotism in leadership. If one of your employees asks you something that you don’t know the answer to, be honest. If you pretend to know the answer and say something that you think is correct but isn’t—you (and your employee) could end up in an even worse position, and you’ll quickly lose your team’s respect. On the other end, don’t brush off questions you don’t know the answer to either. Tell your employee that you’re not sure of the answer, but that YOU will find out what it is. Even involve them when talking to someone, or include them in the email you send. It may take longer to get the answer, but if you follow through you’ll instantly gain the respect you want from your employee.

Ask for feedback

Employees who have more experience and more tenured, have likely seen processes change over and over.  They’ve seen what works, what should be improved, and what they believe will never change. Ask your tenured employees for their thoughts and opinions. They may be able to see issues that you did not think of. Meet with them regularly to gain insight and feedback for what is working and what is not. You will build trust and gain their respect.

Ask what they need to succeed

If there is a significant age gap between you and an employee, it could mean that you don’t understand what your team needs to be successful in their role. This goes for work/life balance, and to be successful in their role with you as their manager. They could be used to working more privately, in a quiet setting, instead of a open space. Or maybe they need to block out an hour each day to focus on their work at hand. Ask them what they need to succeed, and what has worked for them in the past. For work life balance, having a more flexible schedule, or scheduling meetings during different times of day could be best. A ping pong table, and snack counter may not be what they need if they have kids they need to drop off to school, or pick up for volleyball and soccer practice.