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How to Manage People Who Know More Than You

By | Katie Douthwaite Wolf |

On my first day as a manager at a software company, I discovered that most of my employees had been doing their jobs for several years—some, for more than 10. And I, a 24-year-old former cupcake baker and technological spaz, was now assuming the role of their direct supervisor.

Which meant: When my team members had questions about anything from recovering a lost password to the complex set-up of the software they implemented, they would be coming to me for a resolution. All I could think about was the fact that I wouldn’t know a single answer to any of these questions—and that they would see right through my “expertise.”

So naturally, I panicked. I immediately regretted taking the job, cursed the recruiter who thought I was even remotely qualified for the position, and took a few too many teary-eyed trips to the restroom, where no one could hear my pathetic blubbering.

When I managed to regain my composure (and my drive to succeed), I knew I had to make the best of this challenging situation. I surely didn’t know everything about my new company or the inner workings of its software, but I did have management experience—and with that in my favor, I could make it work.

If you find yourself in a position where your employees know more than you (which, especially as a young manager, you almost certainly will), here are a few ways I found to navigate this seemingly tough situation.

Be Honest

If one of your direct reports asks you something that you don’t know the answer to, be honest. At first, I shied away from this, because I was sure it would make me come across as weak, unknowledgeable, and altogether unfit to be in a management position. But, if you go the other route—providing an answer that you think is correct but isn’t—you (and your employee) could end up in an even worse position, and you’ll quickly lose your team’s respect.

On the other hand, don’t brush these questions off, either. Let’s face it, nothing is worse than asking your supervisor—the person you’re supposed to bring your questions and concerns to—a question and having her reply, “I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask someone else.”

Here’s a better approach: Tell your employee that you’re not sure of the answer, but that you’ll find out from someone who does. Sure, it may take a few minutes (or hours) to track down the information, but if you follow through and eventually produce the answer she needs, you’ll instantly gain her respect.

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