Science Matters: How the Younger Manager Gets It Right

By Alan Edwards

No matter how old or young workers may be, certain management principles are usually effective: make them accountable for their work, treat them with respect, and say thank you. These principles have value whether you work at a large corporation or in a small scientific laboratory.

But even when you have a general plan for effectively managing your lab’s workforce, it is crucial to recognize that the workplace is not the same as it once was. It has evolved from a traditional place in which people spend their entire careers to one of “versatilability”, a change that demands the ability of both employees and managers to adapt on a regular basis.

This is particularly crucial for those in their twenties and early thirties—dubbed by the media as “millennials” or “Generation Y”— who are increasingly taking on management roles that would not have been available to them years ago in a more traditional setting. As a result, these young professionals are often put in the position of navigating a multigenerational workforce. At the extreme end of this scenario, younger managers can end up managing people who, at least age-wise, could be their parents. While there’s definitely the potential for conflict and awkwardness, younger managers will succeed if they are able to adapt to the generational differences and similarities that are certain to have an impact on the relationships with their employees.

The first step is to focus on the fact that younger and older workers are not as different as they seem. It might come as a surprise that millennials and those of the older generation— the “baby boomers”—actually are similar in many key areas despite common concerns about how to bridge the generational divide in the workplace. In this age of e-mail and social networking, for instance, Gen Y managers actually prefer face-to-face communication just like their baby boomer colleagues.

Recent results of the Kelly Global Workforce Index™ also indicate that people still in the infancy of their careers and those who already have climbed the ladder want the ability to be mobile in their work and to pick and choose what jobs are right for them. Both groups are aware that money is not necessarily the most important thing when it comes to being happy on the job. And both groups recognize that there must be value in their work in terms of the societal relevance of the products or services produced in order to derive any amount of satisfaction from their careers. Joint clarity on intent and purpose helps align employee teams striving to achieve shared goals and realize a company’s vision.

So instead of approaching baby boomers as people who have a completely different work philosophy, younger managers can harness these strong similarities between the generations in order to discover common ground. Taking this approach ultimately will help every employee contribute to a lab’s business goals and be as productive as possible.

Also know, however, that generational differences do not exist in a vacuum. All employees in the workplace are influenced by their individual experiences and worldview as well as the time in which they grew up, which is why it can be a mistake for younger managers to manage with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In fact, the better one can recognize both generational commonalities and uniquenesses, the better one can establish a sense of unity in a company culture. And the so-called softer skills regarding the integration of individuals into the workforce are playing an ever-increasing role in the productivity of a company.

Take the time to consider how an employee’s experiences affect his or her work, as well as how workplace concepts such as success and performance can sometimes mean different things to people who have been in the workforce much longer.

By always being aware of an individual’s work values and sources of personal satisfaction, the younger manager will succeed in creating an optimal work environment in which that worker will be the most productive.

Alan Edwards is senior director and product leader of the Kelly Services® Americas Products Group— Science. Kelly Services, Inc., a leader in providing workforce solutions, is headquartered in Troy, Michigan. For more information, visit Alan can also be followed on LinkedIn (

Published In

Workplace Safety Magazine Issue Cover
Workplace Safety

Published: June 1, 2011

Cover Story

Workplace Safety

OSHA celebrated its 40th birthday this year. And to commemorate the milestone, Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels gave some excellent remarks at the Center for American Progress in April.