How to motivate an older colleague to learn new skills
September 27, 2017 10:33 PM   Subscribe

I manage an employee whose job is becoming less necessary in the eyes of those who determine our library budget. She's in her early sixties, has been at this law firm for sixteen years in the same position, has no degree and no particular interest in learning new skills. Which has been fine! But her job has primarily to do with our print collection, which is being phased out in favor of electronic resources. I need to motivate her to learn skills which may make her less expendable.

I'm middle management, which is to say that while I value her and the job she does, I have no say in her job's continued existence. We've worked together for two years; six months ago I became her boss; we get along very well. I was made aware this week that her job is on the chopping block unless she learns duties that untie her from an aspect of the library - print - that ultimate management plans to phase out.

I'll tell her this, but first wish to have some strategy in place that can help her take on work she has never shown interest in or volunteered, over some upheaval in that department, to take on. She's a sensible person. I and another colleague have and will continue to give her our assistance in the changing demands of the department. But she shies from expanding the parameters of her job and learning new skills. What is the best way to handle this?
posted by goofyfoot to Work & Money (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe she wants a severance package and will retire. If not, I think the only outside (not internal) motivation will respond to is money. More specifically, if she still needs the money and cannot yet retire, she will be anxious, but will learn new skills with a lot of hand holding by others. THe fear of being old and broke is quite the motivator. If the reason she is still working is because she does not want to be sitting at home with nothing to do, I doubt she will think it worth it to change.

Talk to her about the likely phase out and her plans for the future. She may surprise you and maybe you can broker a package for her to retire or be laid off.
posted by AugustWest at 10:45 PM on September 27, 2017 [12 favorites]

I've been in a very similar situation, including me being promoted to be my colleague's manager. She was well aware that things were changing and was worried.
What I did was find small tasks within the new paradigm that I knew she could manage very well, and made sure to let the whole team know she was doing well (also, I told younger, too-smart-for-their-own-good colleagues to respect her work). This emboldened her, and she took on more and more tasks. Unfortunately, I came down with stress and had to change jobs, and she was eventually fired because of a complete change of direction at the workplace, but I'm helping her find a new job now she has the skills and I'm certain we'll succeed.
posted by mumimor at 12:05 AM on September 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I've never had to manage someone in this situation, but I've worked with older colleagues who struggled in situations of workplace change. A couple of things I observed:
  • After many years doing the same or a similar job, these workers have a niche and are very experienced and capable in the role they have been doing. They feel very competent and are proud of their work and skill. Having to learn a new skill can feel very humbling, and depending on personality, they may not be able to tolerate that.
  • The requirement to learn a new skill and do new tasks can seem like it is devaluing the work they have previously done. I suspect that the tendency I observed to badmouth the incoming tasks or technology was a reaction to this feeling of devaluation. Some people paint themselves into a corner by rubbishing the change so thoroughly that they can't come back and do the thing they said was stupid.
  • Particularly where the new skill is technology-related, older workers are usually aware that they're at a disadvantage relative to younger workers, especially digital natives. They are aware that it is likely to be harder for them to learn the new skills. The idea that they may try and still fail is really frightening, and again, humbling to someone who's been competently doing the tasks required of them probably for many years or decades.
If it was my job to give this news, I would concentrate on:
  • Pointing out that the work she has done up to now is still valued, although it's no longer needed. Emphasise what she has achieved in the role previously and how that contributes to your current situation (e.g. the digitisation that is about to occur would not be possible if the collection had not been so well organised and catalogued in the first place, for instance.)
  • Acknowledging that this change is probably not what she would have chosen, and that being asked to make a major change in your work tasks can impact on your sense of competence - but that this is temporary.
  • Acknowledging that it is a big change for her, but make it clear that she will get the support she needs to learn the new skills. If I was learning a crucial technology, my preference would be for a low-key introduction to it (where I can observe without having to do things where I might make mistakes), some self-paced exploration in an environment where I can't break things (sandbox rather than a live database, for example), some formal instruction, and explicit permission to ask lots of questions when ever they come up.
Although this is a situation where you're trying to convince her to do something she doesn't want to do, it's also pretty clear that if she doesn't do what is required, she won't have a job, so it's really about "help me to help you". It seems like you're invested in keeping her job, and that's worth reflecting on - why is it that you'd rather have her learn these skills than bring in someone else who already knows how to do them? Presumably there is a personal connection, and she probably also has attributes that make you want to keep her in her role (e.g. she is reliable, has good knowledge of the organisation, is good at particular tasks that won't be changing?) Those things might be good to mention to her too.
posted by Cheese Monster at 12:47 AM on September 28, 2017 [31 favorites]

This question and its answers (linked from Ask A Manager) might also have some relevant advice.
posted by Cheese Monster at 2:16 AM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, being told "you will be fired unless this old dog learns new tricks" is a huge motivator. Unless she decides she'd rather retire early than do so, anyway. It's really going to depend on the personality that you're working with, though. If she's "sensible," that bodes well, but how resistant is she to change? How ticked off does she get? How cooperative is she as a personality? If "you will be fired" doesn't motivate her, I don't know what else would.

I'm reminded of a former coworker of mine who uh.... still had to learn complicated new things she didn't particularly want to do because she still had to work a few more years until retirement. I work with a partially automated system that needs a lot of manual fixes and has errors built into the system that nobody will ever fix. You basically hit the magic button, 80% of the work is done, and then you spend the rest of your time fixing the mistakes the system makes. She kind of halfassed it all--didn't do any of the new work unless she got forced to, and I have discovered that she didn't bother to proofread/fix her work at all--she hit the magic button and then rolled it out of the queue and I'm going to spend the rest of my life here fixing her work as I find it. Whee. So unfortunately, that's something you really need to watch out for. Not only just getting her to learn the new skills, but to do them right and KEEP doing them right. My coworker knew what she was supposed to do, she just didn't bother and it wasn't gonna be her problem to have to care about in 2 years, so she got away with it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:11 AM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I could not have said it better than Cheese Monster, and I coach managers on discussions like this as part of my consulting practice.

One thing that wasn't mentioned is to also include a safety valve - talk to your own manager first about what happens if she doesn't want to. Can you get them to agree to a retirement with a severance, and a phased release? If so, offer her that upfront, too. "If you're not interested in what is essentially this new position, I totally understand. We'd hate to lose you, and we will need your help to make a transition as smooth as possible. We're prepared to offer a generous severance package if that's what you would prefer."
posted by juniperesque at 7:02 AM on September 28, 2017

As an older employee who started working in offices before computers, was at the forefront of computerizing booking keeping for several business when personal computing became a thing, this is back before Windows hell I learned Lotus1-2-3 & Wordperfect when they were considered the cutting edge software. At some point you stop seeing technology as the holy grail that will fix everything just start to go oh great another technology change, whats in it for me, how is this actually going to make my life easier. The old "Do not consider progress that which is merely change" adage starts to ring true.

Don't assume this person doesn't know they need to change, they've seen more change than you've had hot dinners, just right now they don't see the benefit to themselves or their department to change. You need to explain why the change is good, what is in it for them how it will help them & their department and then you need to show them it will help. Does she know she'll be phased out if she doesn't learn the new systems, because "keeping your job" is a great what's in it for me too. Unless they're just counting down the days to retirement, in which case they're just going to do the minimum they can to muddle through.

Before you think I'm a luddite, say this as a smart phone owning, computer loving geek, computer game playing (just finished an Overwatch game before I came here) who uses computers for work & fun for at least 8-10 many hours a day and uses plenty of brand new shiny systems. I'm just more cynical about how shiny they really are than some of my younger workmates so take longer to get on the whooo new system let's run out & learn it bandwagon, because in a couple of years (if that) some new software/technology is going to come along and replace it. This can mess with your motivation to enthusiastically embrace the new tech in the office.
posted by wwax at 7:32 AM on September 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

The other thing is that as her manager, you can also just be like "here's what we're going to do." Obviously, you want her to want to learn it, but I wouldn't let your sensitivity to her feelings, motivation, and desires inadvertently convey the impression that this is optional.

Like: "I wanted to let you know that some changes are coming in how our department does its work, based on recent direction I've received from the Board. Over the next year, they have asked us to increasingly focus on our electronic collection. So starting in January, I am going to need 25% of your time to be spent updating the database.* Please register for either the October or November training / I am going to ask Maria to schedule a series of meetings with you to orient you."

When assigning a new project, I always like to talk about why the project is important (keeping in mind what she values) and why she herself is important to the effort. So at the * above, I might include "The Board believes that we can reach a much wider set of people via electronic resources. For example, because of the way electronic resources are priced, we can greatly expand our offerings for the non-English speaking residents that you've done so much to support."

And at the end, I'd add something about the value she'll bring, such as "I am glad you'll be working on this because your reference desk experience means you really understand how people look for information, and that perspective will really help as the database team sets up the search function."

You can be prepared to offer some of the empathy described above if she seems unhappy, but I'd mix in as much matter-of-factness and confidence that this will go well as you can.
posted by salvia at 12:55 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I worked with someone, I'll call her Queequeg, whose strategy was to flip out and go nuts in e-mail over every tiny technological change and cc screeds to dozens of people. Frequently the screeds revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of some small concept about how we were to do our work within the new technological landscape, a small concept that everybody else understood but that she didn't and awwww, she's too old to understand it. At the time I assumed this was entirely fear-driven: now I think it may have been partly strategic. The new technology was full of buggy stupidity and makework, it turned out, and was a gigantic hassle that kept us floundering endlessly to serve its endlessly expanding needs instead of doing our actual work. I'm glad I worked with Queequeg, and I'm glad Queequeg was so loud in e-mail because now, gradually but inevitably, I am becoming Queequeg.

At work we're adopting a new (and honestly pretty gloriously labor-saving) platform to handle workflow, and I consider it my responsibility to react to every imposition of a new responsibility in the system with suspicion and truculence and folded arms, a la Queequeg. It's working for me. Ignoring the new system until the last possible minute saved me work because my freshfaced young colleagues of course earlyadopted like mad and figured out how it worked and began doing it, so that once I finally started pulling my weight, the stupid bullshit slog they'd been wasting days on was obvious. I've since successfully shoved that onerous slog off of me and the freshfaced earlyadopting colleagues by Queequegging it, which is something my millennial colleagues really can't do because they'd look insufficiently adept, whereas I just look my age.

If I were you, I would try to help by identifying what parts of the new system/policy/strategy are essential to getting the actual work done and what parts are bullshit. Because, as I learned from Queequeg, there are always parts that are bullshit. The thing Queequeg never did, possibly because the system they were trying to get her to learn really was terrible (it was; it sucked), but more likely because Queequeg was Queequeg, was ever mention what was good about the new system. That's a crucial element. Fortunately for me, I do genuinely love our new system, so in addition to all that shirking, I'm able to holler about how great it is all the time and demonstrate willingness to exploit to the max the parts of it that are awesome. I am a late but loudly fervent adopter. Your person will be more useful and her job will be safer if you and she can quickly identify what parts of her new workworld will be bullshit and what parts are just new and might even be enjoyable. If you can help her be a strategic Queequegger, it might save her job.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:16 AM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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