Research on the link between age and organisational leadership typically focuses on the difficulties encountered by older managers within a work setting. However, younger managers frequently face unique challenges of their own to being accepted as leaders by their employees. This is one of the main findings of a study conducted by UvA researchers Claudia Buengeler and Astrid Homan, and Sven Voelpel from Jacobs University Bremen. The results are published in the latest issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
To date, much has been written about the pitfalls older individuals, including older managers, face at work because of age-based discrimination and other biases. This focus has tended to obscure the difficulties younger managers face when trying to effectively influence subordinates. For their article, the researchers analysed these difficulties by doing experimental research and a field study among 83 teams comprising 690 individuals and 83 leaders. The leader ages ranged from 23 years to 48 years. What they found was that younger managers face a heightened risk of being rejected on account of their perceived lack of expertise and status (i.e. older age). This rejection becomes visible in subordinates opting to resign, which has negative implications for the organisation at large.
The researchers also discovered that strategies that may seem intuitive to overcome such resistance, for example by de-emphasising a managerial position and consulting employees, can further lower a manager’s level of acceptance among his or her employees and lead to more resignations.
‘At first glance, one would assume that younger managers should involve subordinates in decision-making and consultations due to their already lowered status', says Buengeler, an assistant professor at the UvA’s Amsterdam Business School. ‘The opposite is true: participative leadership further lowers younger managers’ ability to influence their teams as it requires leaders to have certain status. When employed by younger managers, subordinates might see participative leadership as an illegitimate request for knowledge and resources. In line with this, research has shown that when low-status leaders use participative leadership, their perceived status drops even further.’
A more effective strategy to gain acceptance, the researchers argue, is the use of contingent reward in the form of praise and recognition. Astrid Homan, associate professor at the UvA’s department of Work and Organisational Psychology: ‘Contingent reward draws on the resources that managers can control independent of their age. Because subordinates tend to reciprocate such favorable treatment, the use of contingent reward helps younger managers influence subordinates, without requiring age-based status.’
Understanding which leadership behaviors work and which don’t for younger managers is important because the respective choice influences turnover decisions of subordinates and thus whether the right set of people can be retained in an organisation, the researchers point out.
Buengeler: ‘The age of the workforce is increasing, but managers continue to enter managerial positions early on in their careers. Knowing which leadership behaviors younger managers can use to effectively influence their teams is thus vital. Organisations should recognize the potential disadvantages that young managers face due to their lowered natural status and prepare them accordingly.’
Buengeler, C., Homan, A.C., & Voelpel, S.C. (2016). The challenge of being a young manager: The effects of contingent reward and participative leadership on team-level turnover depend on leader age. Journal of Organizational Behavior. doi: 10.1002/job.2101