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A surprising downside to merit-based promotions

A new study finds that the age gap between older workers and younger supervisors is linked to the frequency of emotions such as “anger, fear, and disgust” among older subordinates, and that more frequent negative emotions of this type are associated with lower company performance in areas such as financial results, growth, efficiency, and return on assets.

This is in part due to “emotion contagion” as the negative feelings evoked by such an age gap tends to spread throughout an organization, says the study by academics in Britain and Germany published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The study

The study, entitled “Younger supervisors, older subordinates: An organizational-level study of age differences, emotions, and performance”, is co-authored by Florian Kunze, Chair for Organisational Studies at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and by Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

“As far as we know, this is the first study to link negative emotions of older subordinates to performance at the organizational level,” says study co-author Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. “The findings have clear practical implications for companies in managing these relationships.”

Effect of shift in promotion systems

The “age-inverse” findings are relevant to changing patterns of the modern workplace. Companies are retaining older employees longer due to demographic changes and the abandonment of early retirement schemes, as firms also have shifted from seniority- to merit-based promotion systems. As a result, increasing numbers of workers are being supervised by younger people.

Negative emotions of older subordinates are triggered by “status incongruence” and a “violation of career norms” which get more painful as the age gap widens. This can harm organizational performance by hindering collaboration, depressing motivation, and harming productivity.

“Age differences between supervisors and older subordinates clearly matter, and not in a positive way,” Menges says. “We found that such age gaps can harm company performance by negatively influencing employee emotions. If the age gap is small, employees throughout a company are less likely to experience such negative emotions.”

“Our findings put to question contemporary promotion practices that disregard age as a criterion for placing a person into a supervisory role,” the study says.

Effect of expressing feelings

The study found, however, that the negative effect on company performance occurs only if subordinates express their feelings toward the supervisor; the effect is “neutralized” if emotions are suppressed.

The study’s findings on emotion suppression were complex and nuanced. Whereas some previous studies found emotional suppression at the individual level to be a demanding and socially costly strategy, “we show that emotion suppression can be an effective strategy in circumstances that involve emotionally taxing social interactions.”

“This finding should not be taken to imply that organizations should promote cultures of emotional suppression,” the study says. Instead, companies should “approach the challenges of age-inverse supervisory relationships in ways that benefit both the company at the organizational level and the employees at the individual level, rather than one or the other.”


While the researchers do not question the effectiveness of merit-based promotion, “we do have evidence for some of the repercussions that companies are likely to face when moving away from traditional age structures and abandoning seniority-based promotion systems.” Companies should therefore think carefully about how to avoid such pitfalls, including less emphasis on “career timetables” and “hierarchical thinking” so employees would respond less emotionally to age differences.

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