The Sandwich Manager

Robert W. Wendover

July 1, 2009

Over the past several years, the term “sandwich generation” has emerged to describe individuals who care for their elderly parents and their own children at the same time. A variation of this phenomenon is occurring at work, where “sandwich managers” supervise workers spanning a wide range of ages within one environment.

Since the range of ages in a workplace can run from a few years to as much as four generations, it has become incumbent upon managers to develop a rich appreciation for the differences in the values and expectations of others’ approaches to work. Much has been written about the influences of technology and convenience on young people. But for a sandwich manager, the reality of balancing the needs and desires of those aged 17 to 70 is much more complicated than in years past. Many managers have had the phenomenon thrust upon them as the workforce has evolved. What can these individuals do to juggle the myriad of ages and experiences with which they now work? Here are some suggestions:

Set Clear and Specific Expectations for All

This, of course, is always easier said than done. Ask random employees in any setting what they are supposed to do, and they will give you an interpretation of what the manager told them in their first few days on the job. Not only will the descriptions vary widely, but the ways the tasks are actually performed will vary as well. A task as rudimentary as cleaning a store’s stockroom can be the source of endless approaches. Managers are finding that using a general phrase like “clean up the stockroom” will not suffice. Providing specific steps works better: “Make sure all the box labels face out. Consolidate half-full boxes of the same item. Sweep the floor, and make sure you get the corners.”

Clear expectations level the field between the generations. When there is a discrepancy in performance, the sandwich manager can refer to the expectations for guidance. A classic example of this is the complaint from older employees that young people do not work as hard as necessary. A manager comparing outcome to expectations may find the output is the same. It is the approach that’s different.

Establish Credibility from the Beginning

A sandwich manager can be caught in the middle. On one side, there may be veteran workers who think the manager is too young to be in charge. While this may appear nonsense to an outsider, it can very much be the belief of those with a traditional reference of how a manager should look, act, and talk. On the other side, there may be workers 15 to 20 years the manager’s junior who perceive the manager as ancient from their frame of reference. “What can this geezer teach us?” they might think. “He’s a technological Neanderthal.” Walking the line between these two groups can, in itself, feel like a full-time job.

How does one establish the credibility necessary to effectively govern such a diverse group? For a manager new to the responsibility, the best course is to set the stage from the very beginning and demonstrate that he/she is flexible and approachable. That is not to say that the manager allows the employees to take charge. It is more about establishing a dialog from which to launch a managerial approach.

The manager might begin by gathering everyone in a room to introduce himself or herself, for example. Even a 30-minute, all-hands briefing can accomplish several objectives:

  1. It allows the manager to introduce himself/herself to everyone at the same time.
  2. It provides an opportunity for the manager to describe his/her background and philosophy of supervision.
  3. It provides the manager an opportunity to outline general expectations about performance.

After the all-hands meeting, it is important for the manager to meet individually with those who may have concerns about his/her ability to lead. Typically, this involves veteran employees who are used to a manager with a different approach and energy. If the manager’s predecessor was around for a long time, there also may be a feeling of loss if he or she was well liked. The new manager will need to reassure the veterans that he/she respects their experience and skills, letting them know that he/she intends to be more of a resource to them than a manager.

If the manager has been in a supervisory role for a while and is dealing with cross-generational conflicts, the approach will be considerably different. Cross-generation awareness training can lead to discussions about the differences in values and expectations within the team or department. The manager needs to remain aware of subtle comments made by co-workers. One young engineer complained that whenever he made a suggestion in a gathering of veteran engineers, one of them would say something like, “When you were negative two, we tried that idea and it didn’t really work.”

“It’s amusing the first few times,” he said. “Then it got irritating.”

Subtle put-downs are not limited to older employees. More than one young professional, for instance, has responded to a computer question with the phrase, “Okay, let me show you one more time.” Whether the comment is intended to be cute or demeaning, it is inappropriate. When an effective sandwich manager overhears such a comment, he or she pulls the person making the comment aside and diplomatically processes the situation.

>For those clearly stuck in an “us-versus-them” situation, a more formal method may be required. Take some time to consider how to approach those who are the source of the conflict. How can one open the dialog? What behavior needs to change? How might these individuals respond? Would it be better to meet individually or with the team as a whole? These interventions can be time consuming, but they are better than allowing cross-generational frustration to fester and harm productivity.

Continually Foster Relations across Generations

It is human nature to congregate with those who share familiar backgrounds and experiences. Fragmentation of the workplace because of age can lead to misunderstandings and rumors, just as it can with gender, race, and cultural differences. We all tend to see others through the filters of our own experiences. An effective sandwich manager works constantly to keep the lines of communication open and the perceptions of others informed.

The sandwich manager might begin by considering those with a knack for reaching across familiar lines to engage those in other groups. They exist in every workplace and can be found through simple observation. To whom does everyone turn for answers? Who seems to speak for the group when there is an issue? Who are the natural leaders in the organization? Who would one pick as aspiring managers because they seem to get along with everyone? These are the individuals who have the best chance of reaching across generational boundaries.

This is best cultivated gently, through subtle comments and suggestions. A good example is asking those from different generations to serve on a team or committee. An effective sandwich manager is both patient and persistent.

Deal with the Influence of Technology

No article on managing across generations would be complete without a discussion about the influence of today’s technology and how different age groups respond. While younger workers may excel in manipulating computers, many managers report that younger employees struggle in other aspects of critical thinking. Veteran workers may struggle with the nuances of computer use at times, but the critical thinking skills they developed prior to the computer age serve them well. These differences manifest themselves in complaints about younger workers lacking common sense and older workers lacking computer savvy.

What can a sandwich manager do to help each generation embrace the other’s approach to technology? Look for opportunities to create cross-generational teams. Assigning individuals of different ages to the same project or task places them in an environment where they have to work together to get the mission accomplished. Depending on the number one supervises and the work being done, this might be occurring already. Still, it is critical to observe the interaction between the groups. What do veteran workers share, and how do they choose to share it? What do younger workers suggest, and how is it received? Do younger workers take the initiative to assist veteran workers with the challenges of technology application?

Another effective strategy is cross-generational mentoring. Consider the veteran contributors on the team: What knowledge and skills do they possess that need to be shared with those rising within the organization? Then consider young contributors: Who would most welcome the opportunity to grow by learning new skills and insights? What skills and insights do these young contributors possess that the veterans might find helpful? What steps can you take to put these individuals together?

Rather than making this a formal match-making process, managers need to find informal opportunities to introduce these individuals. If they already know each other, they should be encouraged to take time occasionally to exchange ideas.

Re-Engage Veteran Workers

Most members of this generation possess a breadth of experience, coupled with a depth of wisdom about their industry, employer, and job. That said, many have become less than fully engaged over the years. It is paramount that sandwich managers keep these workplace veterans engaged in their work and with those around them.

A sandwich manager should begin by taking stock of those who have been with the organization for a considerable time. What skills and insights do they have that are not readily apparent in the everyday workplace? What special certifications and awards have they achieved? Where do they really shine? In what ways do they contribute to the field, perhaps through trade associations, research, or writing?

Consider introducing opportunities for mentoring. While some informal mentoring is sure to be going on already, it is helpful to encourage it officially. Of course, effective mentoring takes more effort and design than simply assigning one contributor to another. Each relationship takes time to evolve, and many of these relationships are not long term. Rather than forcing the process, most managers have found that simply soliciting interest from veteran contributors and letting everyone know who is open to these kinds of relationships is the most effective way to proceed.

Veteran contributors also can be used as a part of the recruiting process. Given the depth of knowledge and perspective they have about the industry and the organization, there is much they can share. These individuals are living examples of people who have thrived within the organization and industry, and can certainly answer questions their younger colleagues cannot.

Actively pursuing the kinds of opportunities described above accomplishes several goals:

  1. It re-engages veteran contributors in the workplace.
  2. It increases productivity within the team.
  3. It expands the creative horizons of younger contributors.
  4. It assists in the transfer of the knowledge base possessed by veteran contributors.
  5. It fosters more opportunities for communication between the generations in the workplace.

Help Veteran Contributors Cope with the Emotions of Topping Out

Increasingly, those in their 30s and 40s are assuming managerial roles that have been held by the older generations. For veteran contributors, this can be an emotionally challenging time. Finding themselves being supervised by someone significantly younger is usually a sign that they will not be advancing further within the organization. Some individuals adapt to this as a part of career evolution. Others find it troubling. Part of the sandwich manager?s job is understanding the dynamics of this and working to develop a trusting and productive relationship with each of the veteran contributors. The question, of course, is how.

It might be tempting to dismiss all this emotion. After all, people in their 50s knew that eventually the transition would come. But developing an understanding of the emotions is the first step in connecting with individuals in this situation who may not want anything to do with younger managers, even though they are in charge. Managers should research older workers’ contributions and take time to visit with them, asking about their impressions of the organization and their prescriptions for what needs to improve. Managers should ask them how they would like to contribute, and then listen. Chances are, they will pick up a wealth of nuance they can use in moving the organization forward.

Sandwich managers should offer themselves as a resource, rather than a manager. Many veteran workers bring skills and techniques to the table that represent the true work within the organization. Yes, younger managers are in charge, but those on the front line are the ones producing the output, whatever it is. Managers should dispel thoughts that every sentence the veteran workers utter is going to begin with the words, “I remember when.” Fair or not, the onus is on the manager to approach the workers and build productive relationships if they are to succeed.

Manage the Communication Gap and Protocol

One of the more common concerns voiced by sandwich managers is that traditional communication practices are being usurped by young workers. These include reducing language, courtesy, and protocol to a lowest common denominator because of technology.

The emphasis on doing more with less has exacerbated this phenomenon by implying that traditional ways of communicating are too time-consuming and inefficient. Why meet when you can call? Why call when you can e-mail? Why e-mail when you can text? “Time is money” is the familiar lament, but so is ineffective communication.

Sandwich managers should seek recommendations from those in all generations about the most effective ways to communicate. They might do this individually or by forming a multi-generational task force. Managers should ask for specific ideas and methodologies, not just general wisdom. Ask workers to research other organizations to locate strategies that work. Remind them that they will have to live with what they recommend on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, managers will need to enforce these protocols diplomatically but consistently. In the midst of their other commitments, this may seem like one more burden, but clear communication between all members of the team, customers, and vendors is essential. Chances are, most everyone will work toward making this happen because they understand the different approaches others bring to the job; but some additional training will be necessary with those who do not adapt well or do not have enough investment in doing the job well in the first place.

The era of the sandwich manager is just beginning. Emerging leaders will be facing these challenges for years to come. The most successful will embrace these differences from the beginning and develop strategies for engaging every individual contributor, regardless of age.