Multi-Generational Leadership: How to Bridge Gaps in Age and Understanding

A new generation is formed every 20 years, marked by differences in beliefs, attitudes and behaviors from the generation before them, according to the generationalist theory. There are currently four generations in the American workplace: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. Each is distinct, and healthcare workplaces will fare well if leaders appreciate each generation's strengths and weaknesses and work to diminish age-related misunderstandings.

Terrence Cahill, EdD, FACHE, and Mona Sedrak, PhD, PA-C, are professors at Seton Hall University School of Health and Medical Sciences in South Orange, N.J., and have studied generational diversity extensively. They recommend healthcare leaders disregard one-size-fits-all management approaches and be flexible in how they approach older and younger employees.

Here are profiles on the four generations currently in the workforce, along with specific management topics that may require a multi-generational approach in management.

Traditionalists were born from 1925-1942. Generally, they consider a chain of command, or top-down approach, to be most efficient in management. They believe in duty before pleasure and respect authority.

Baby Boomers were born from 1943-1960. They account for 45 percent of the workforce and are generally highly competitive, optimistic and known to spur change.

Generation X-ers were born from 1961-1981. They comprise 35 percent of the current workforce and are the first generation to enter the workforce after the first wave of corporate downsizing. Generation X-ers are known to be focused and resourceful but also skeptical, particularly of institutions.

Millennials were born after 1982. They make up approximately 10-15 percent of the workforce, and their defining characteristic is technology. Millennials are multi-taskers who appreciate team-oriented work.

When it comes to training, each generation benefits from a subtly-tailored approach that reflects their attitudes. For instance, the learning style of Traditionalists is to politely listen while Boomers are considered more cautious and do not want to appear inept in front of their superiors in the workplace. X-ers benefit from a variety of training methods, such as exercises and games, while Millennials expect training to move along quickly and to do four different things at once.

All generations are starved for positive feedback, but positive or negative feedback may need to be presented differently. For instance, Traditionalists often adopt a "no news is good news" train of thought. Boomers are accustomed to formal, annual reviews with documentation. X-ers tend to seek feedback more informally, such as casually asking about their performance, while Millennials may be more aggressive in their approach and treat feedback as something they can access instantly or something that is owed to them.

Managing up or down

Of course, hospital CEOs and other leaders may also manage physicians or employees who are older than them. For Traditionalists, Dr. Sedrak and Dr. Cahill recommend leaders do the following five things: respectfully assert authority, recognize their accomplishments and contributions, teach them in a safe environment, engage them as teachers and consider recruiting older workers as part-time project leaders and coaches. For Baby Boomers, leaders should assume the role of a coach rather than a manager and facilitate rather than dictate discussions.

When "managing down" X-ers, Dr. Sedrak and Dr. Cahill recommend leaders communicate with them frequently, give them credit for results and push them to keep learning. For Millennials, leaders should support a work/life balance and treat them as colleagues so they will act as professionals. Millennials can thrive in roles that push their limits since they grew up multi-tasking, and achievement incentives can be used as a tool to reward and motivate them.

Career changes and time off
The concept of a career change presents stark differences in opinion from each generation. Traditionalists think a job change carries a stigma, Baby Boomers think it puts your career behind, X-ers consider career changes necessary and Millennials find them routine. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are accustomed to vacation and sick time with strict guidelines and the ability to stockpile unused days and trade them in. X-ers and Millennials, however, are used to paid-time-off and may feel as though they can use the time without needing to explain why.

Related Articles on Hospital Leadership:
4 Strategies to Optimize Leadership in Integrated Care
Steve Ronstrom: Hardwiring Mission and Values Into the Hospital Culture
10 Steps to Improve Employee Engagement and Drive Results

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