Organisations should include a balance of young and old managers in their decision-making processes, says Monash professor James Sarros, whose research shows workers in different age groups bring different types of intelligence to the table.

The Monash University Department of Management and Australian Institute of Management research study, The Impact of Age on Managerial Style, assessed managers and their direct reports using surveys and tests to investigate managerial effectiveness, leadership style and emotional intelligence.

The researchers were surprised to find no significant difference in the leadership styles of younger and older managers.

However, the types of intelligence they used – their thinking processes – were different.  Two types of problem solving ability – fluid and crystallised intelligence were measured. 

“Fluid intelligence is an individual’s inherited basic reasoning ability. This is something that declines through adulthood; it’s something that’s more active and dynamic in younger people.

“We also measured crystallised intelligence, which is an individual’s mental abilities learned through applying their skills to certain situations. This is something that increases during an individual’s life.

“We hypothesised that the older managers would probably be stronger in crystallised intelligence and their fluid intelligence would be lower than the younger managers,” he says.

The research supported the theory, reinforcing the importance of retaining older managers, because they’re bringing different skill sets to the decision-making and problem-solving processes, Sarros says.

“[This] is important because they’re looking at things in a different way than the younger managers.”

Not so different after all?

The findings in relation to leadership style were surprising, Sarros says.

The researchers expected to find that older, more experienced workers would have a more “transformational” as opposed to “transactional” leadership style.

“Research has shown conclusively for many years that the older, more experienced you are the more transformational you can become – because you’ve got all that experience under your belt you can relax a little bit, you can start motivating and inspiring your staff rather than just transacting on the work that needs to be done; whereas younger managers tend to be a little bit more transactional because they’re lacking in a bit of confidence,” Sarros says.

“Our findings didn’t show that. We found that regardless of age, the leadership behaviours of older and more junior managers were pretty much the same – they both used similar levels of transformational and transactional leadership.”

More research is needed to explore the finding, but one explanation for it could be the rise of learning and development programs, Sarros says.

“Over the last 10 years or so, companies have spent a lot of money – in the millions – on leadership development programs at all levels of the organisation, so people are much more cognisant of what leadership entails – they’re more aware of the different behaviours and approaches they can use – and therefore we’re starting to see leadership capability distilling itself throughout all levels of the organisation.”

In other words, the finding might show that L&D programs are making a real difference to the way managers operate.

Sarros and his colleagues also found a manager’s approach to problem solving, whether fluid or crystallised, had no significant impact on his or her effectiveness.

This suggests that managerial effectiveness works independently of reasoning capacity.

“This is an important finding, as it indicates that most managers can achieve suitable outcomes based on different levels of individual expertise,” they say in their report.

“The challenge for organisations is identifying the individual talents and skills of managers, and then channelling these talents and skills in ways beneficial to organisational productivity and employee morale and wellbeing.”

Balance is key

Though not demonstrated in this particular study, Sarros says research shows that the more mature and experienced a person is, the higher their levels of integrity and emotional intelligence – of optimism, resilience and self-efficacy.

“Older managers can use those skills to coach and mentor their younger colleagues, and so build a far more robust, sustainable and happy workplace.”

He says the risk of an age imbalance in an organisation’s management ranks is something to beware of.

For example, an organisation run by managers in their 20s and 30s could result in a “cut-throat” team of leaders who lack loyalty and make decisions that don’t reflect the full breadth of the workplace and strategic issues.

But having too many older managers could mean too much conservatism and slower decision making. “There are times when you need dynamic, fast turnarounds and older managers might find that a bit of a struggle, so this is where the younger people would be useful.”

The ideal is a balance.

“I think you need a mix of experienced, older managers as well as younger ones. The younger are great in terms of their energy, their enthusiasm, their creativity – you need that, and you don’t want to stamp that out, you really want to use that – [but] older managers might be able to help stem that into productive outlets,” he says.