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Lead to succeed through generational differences


Chelsea enters the unit chewing gum and texting on her new smart phone. Deb stands there, waiting to get report. Minutes pass as Chelsea chuckles and continues to pound out a couple more texts on her phone. She then looks up to see Deb, arms folded staring at her with an annoyed glare. Chelsea shrugs her shoulder and says, “What?” Deb starts to say, “Well miss twinkle thumbs, you are 15 minutes late for report and it’s time to pass out medications.” Before Deb can complete her sentence, Chelsea interrupts with, “I’m here so that’s all that matters.” Shift report is completed and the nurses go their separate ways.
Soon chatter spreads through the unit as staff choose sides — the lazy new nurse with the obnoxious attitude or the cranky old nurse who needs to lighten up and have a little fun.

As a nurse leader, you’re likely familiar with situations like these in your own work area. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to step up to the plate and stop disruption related to generational differences. We need to gain knowledge of how to lead a workforce that spans four generations, deal with conflict resolution for all age groups, and coach and motivate them to be productive employees. Although real differences exist, we can leverage these differences to create a well-functioning team.

Managing people and priorities

Today’s nursing labor force is composed of staff from four diverse generations, Veterans (born between 1922 and 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1960), Gen Xers (born between 1961 and 1980), and the GenYs (also called Millennials) (born after 1981), and this diversity will continue in future years. To manage these generations, consider what each brings to the table. For instance, one generation might have conquered computers, while another might be able to orally communicate better with patients. Also keep in mind that the information presented in this article consists of general guidelines. Individuals in different generations may have different characteristics, so it’s important not to stereotype people.

In our unit at Hanover Hospital, nurses who can speak well with patients (often Veterans or Baby Boomers) teach younger generations (X and Y) how to communicate effectively. GenXers and GenYs are not as versed in dialogue because most of their communication is through a smart phone or some other form of electronic device. On the other hand, GenXers and GenYs can help the Baby Boomers and Veterans become well versed with the computer or other forms of newer technology because they know the short cuts and quick keys on the computer.

Some principles to use in managing your multigenerational workforce are embracing flexibility, fostering collaboration, creatively using technology, and developing talent. Flexibility includes the ability for leaders to learn how to flex their leadership style so that each generation learns to value the generational differences. Does this mean as leaders we give something up? No, we value the differences but hold all staff to the same expectations.

Collaborating and learning between generations can generate fresh ideas and produce new solutions for solving challenges. A good place to start is with the generational aspect of conflict. The more we can understand the big-picture patterns around generational differences, the more effective our conflict conversations will be.

Managing conflict

Put a group of strangers together, ask them to work side-by-side in a stressful environment for 8 or more hours each day, and you’re bound to have some conflict. And when that group contains people from differing generations, all with different values and views of the world, the amount of conflict can greatly multiply. Much generational conflict stems from the differences in communication style and skills and how those differences are interpreted. Differences can form a barrier that gets in the way of trust, and without trust there is no team. At our hospital, we use several strategies to manage generational conflict more effectively, starting with understanding each generation’s perspective:

  • Veterans experienced World War II, and many grew up with a strict regimen. As such, quality, respect, and authority are typically important to them.
  • Baby boomers, the Woodstock generation, tend to value teamwork, cooperation, and buy-in. The Baby Boomers on your staff may need to make an extra effort to encourage problem solving and handling conflict independently.
  • Gen Xers are usually independent, family-focused, intolerant of bureaucracy, critical, and hardworking. Gen Xers in particular will expect their supervisor or coworkers not to beat around the bush.
  • GenYs can be characterized as highly socialized, loyal, and technologically savvy. When it comes to conflict, they may think, “This older person is yelling at me,” even though you have not raised your voice. This feeling may be because GenYs are not accustomed to words not written in a text form.

We use general conflict management techniques such as focus on the issue at hand, don’t lose site of the conversation, stay on track, look at both sides of the situation, and understand the other’s point of view. Although these are important, they don’t address the bigger picture, which is that generations don’t appreciate or know each other. Here are some recommendations for what you can do to enhance understanding, based on our experience.

  • Distribute a monthly newsletter on generational diversity. Learning is a constant journey through life and needs to continue into the work environment. Include scenarios of real situations that have happened and the correct and incorrect way of handling differences.
  • Share at staff meetings. Have each person share his or her ideas or concerns and areas that need to be addressed to help with conflict. Establish rules for sharing, such as staying on topic, being open minded, and not blaming people.
  • Teach staff communication styles for each generation, helping them understand that each generation has a different way of communicating. At the staff meeting, the group should develop ways of better communicating with each other.

Once you have tackled the conflicts in your work area, the next step is building on this by learning how to coach and motivate staff from different generations.

Coaching and motivating by building bridges

Managing and motivating a diverse workforce can be challenging. As more and more people from the youngest generation enter the workforce and work alongside the most senior employees, leaders are learning that a one-size-fits-all management style simply does not exist. That’s because each of the four generations now working together bring unique ideas to the table and let generation-specific values guide their decisions.

Leaders who know what motivates employees of different generations are more effective in keeping them engaged. How does that happen? As a leader, we need to become educated, creative, open minded, and inventive. The bottom line is that every person on the team desires meaningful work. They desire to belong to the team and to be part of an organization that distinguishes them as an important individual of the team.

To help managers, directors, and other leaders become more effective in coaching and mentoring, send them to class so they can learn about generational differences. Attitudes must begin at the top and filter down. It’s important that as leaders we transform rather than trying to alter the workers. Here are some ideas based on our experience at Hanover Hospital that can help jumpstart you on your way to generational success.

  • Generational differences activities
    • At staff meetings discuss how staff can share about the differences between each other. This helps open up communication.
    • Celebrate generational differences by coming up with a theme for staff meetings. For example, we had a theme where staff shared words that were “cool” when they grew up.
  • Birth an EGG (Employee Engagement Group)
    • An employee engagement group creates a forum for discussion. The concept behind the title is that an egg hatches, grows, and changes but before it can hatch it must be tended to; this is where you as a leader can help.
    • We placed a community piggy bank on the nursing unit. This bank is used as a forum for staff to share differences and concerns. They place notes into the bank to share their thoughts, which are then shared within the unit by email or a staff meeting, whichever is more appropriate. The authors of the notes are not identified.
  • Create a recognition program that resonates with nurses of all generations.
    • We have a group of age-diverse nurses who create recognition ideas for their fellow coworkers based on generational preferences. For example, Baby Boomers want to know the leader cares and tend to like verbal recognition such as through an announcement. Gen Xers want recognition to be straightforward and clear as to who deserved to be recognized, so posting the information on a board might work well. Gen Ys look for the physical or monetary value in praise and recognition: What am I getting out of this?

Summing up

In an environment where hospitals have to do more with less, it’s crucial that the four generations in the workplace work well together. Start by building the workforce to work efficiently with each other. Teach, guide, cultivate, and celebrate their differences. Conflict resolution, coaching, and motivating are skills needed to enhance your ability to lead to succeed in the multigenerational era, but learning these skills isn’t enough. You need to take action. Many small actions can achieve great results.

Joyce Bragg is nurse director of maternal child health, pediatrics and infusion therapy at Hanover Hospital in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Selected references

Throckmorton R, Gravett L. FUSION: a six step solution to handling conflict across generations. Strategic HR inc. 2007. Accessed September 8, 2014.

Sherman R. Leading a multigenerational nursing workforce: issues, challenges and strategies. OJIN. 2006. Accessed September 8, 2014.

Costanza D, Badger J, Fraser R, Severt J, Gade P. Generational differences in work-related attitudes: A meta-analysis. J Bus Psychol. 2012;27(4):375-394.

McNeill BE. Young whipper-snappers and old warhorses: Understanding generational differences and finding common ground. Tar Heel Nurse. 2012;74(2):10-13.

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