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Too young to lead?

Young, dynamic - and not taken seriously. Young people in leadership positions often suffer from a lack of acceptance.

Older man and younger woman at an office desk
© praetorianphoto/iStock

Stereotypical reservations about younger managers are not isolated cases in companies and authorities.

SPD politician Kevin Kühnert effectively brought about the idea of discrimination against young people around two years ago with his hashtag #diesejungenleute (theseyoungpeople). Science was a step ahead of him, though. Professor Claudia Buengeler from the Institute of Business at Kiel University presented the first study into this phenomenon back in 2016 at the University of Amsterdam. She revealed clear tendencies. “Our findings show that slightly older managers often have it easier than younger ones,” she summarised.

The team of authors evaluated extensive data material from companies and experiments, both of which indicated that younger managers seemed to come up against misgivings more frequently. When evaluating the data, for example, there was the question as to whether the fluctuation within teams (which can be viewed as a strong sign of dissatisfaction) led by younger managers is greater than in teams with older bosses. This actually seems to be the case, at least when “theseyoungpeople” practice a participative management style.

In Claudia Buengeler’s opinion, supervisors in companies should consider the following particularly worrying: “Managers who ask others for advice, involve them in decision-making and delegate responsibility, may think they are doing the right thing. But this is obviously seen as a weakness when they are younger people. Along the lines of: they don’t know how to do it and need help from others.”

Experimental studies suggest, in a different way, that there is an age bonus in leadership issues. “If photos of the same person are adjusted to make him or her seem a little younger than older, then this person is regarded as being a manager who is less a “typical” and “competent” leader.

If we look at the not-too-distant future, when lots of managers retire and younger ones are forced to take their places, Claudia Buengeler thinks that this problem urgently needs to be addressed. “It cannot be an acceptable situation that someone has to get old before being respected as a manager.”

What can be done to prevent younger bosses from being devalued, though? Initial findings suggest that younger people are stereotyped with characteristics that do not match those desired in a leader. “Awareness of the fact that these are stereotypes which do not necessarily correspond to the actual facts, could be the first attempt to remedy the problem,” said Christoph Daldrop, who conducted his doctoral research on this topic with Claudia Buengeler. A style of management that focuses more on rewards also seems to stand the test. When achievements are honoured with financial incentives, praise or recognition, younger leaders evidently have an easier time and the fluctuation within the team is accordingly lower.

Professor Buengeler still sees a considerable need for research into the topic, though. Additional findings should result from the research seminar “#diesejungenleute: Altersstereotype als Gegenstand forschenden Lernens” (#theseyoungpeople: age stereotypes as an object of exploratory learning). This project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of PerLe (project for successful teaching and learning), is dedicated to factors such as age composition, among others. Claudia Buengeler, who at the age of 35 is still relatively young to be a Professor of Business, thus surmises a positive effect of mixed ages among leaders in organisations. The less clearly-defined age groups are associated with career stages, the harder it is for age-related norms to arise - which then in turn should have a positive effect on the acceptance of younger managers. But under which age is a manager “young”? “That depends,” says the scientist. In the IT sector, in advertising or in similar fields, the young staff members are in their early or mid 20s. In a Dax company however, 40 to 45 year olds may still be considered hopeful young leaders.

Author: Martin Geist