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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Manage People Who Know More Than You

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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.

Learn From Them

Instead of fearing your employees’ knowledge (and what they’ll think of your lack of knowledge), take advantage of it! Being the newcomer at a company is completely overwhelming—but remember: No matter how long your direct reports have been there, they had a first day, too, and they know how it feels to be the fish out of water and not quite understand the company-specific mumbo-jumbo that’s coming at you at lightning speed.

So during your first few weeks, take some time to sit with each of your employees, watch their daily routines, and ask lots of questions about what they’re doing and talking about. They’ll enjoy demonstrating their knowledge, and you’ll learn more from them than you ever would from a training manual.

Ask For Their Feedback

Employees who have been with a company for more than 10 years have inevitably seen processes change time and again. They’ve seen what works, what needs improvement, and what, as far as they’re concerned, will never change.

As a manager looking for ways to improve processes, increase efficiency and productivity, and bring ideas to life, this is a fantastic resource. Ask your most tenured team members for their opinions and ideas—they’ll often lead to issues and concerns that you hadn’t thought of before. If you don’t quite understand an issue or a process, they can help you with it, plus provide insight on how changes can be made to it.

My advice, though: Don’t let these conversations turn into a fruitless rant of complaints—make sure the pain points you discuss actually lead to action steps, and keep your eye on the goal of resolving issues and making processes better.

Give Them Your Respect

Finally, remember to pay attention to your own frame of mind. It’s easy to come into a management role on the defensive, thinking that you must have beat out all your employees for this coveted position—and then extrapolate that they’re going to be jealous, disrespectful, and bitter toward you.

The truth is, though, management positions and the roles of your employees don’t always go hand-in-hand, and the skills required for each are often completely different. It’s possible that no one in the department even wanted that management gig, because they didn’t want to deal with the meetings, budgets, employee discipline, and all the other duties that come with a supervisor’s role.

With that in mind, it’s important to let go of your assumptions, check your ego at the door, and convey how much you respect and value your employees. Remember, it’s only when you combine their skills and yours that you can move the company forward. Let your employees know how much you value their knowledge, and they’ll be more receptive to your leadership.

Believe me, leading a group of tenured and knowledgeable employees is really intimidating. But when you recognize them as the resource they are and commit to learning as much as possible, you’ll inevitably become a stronger leader.