Managing Multiple Generations at Medical Practices

March 11, 2014

When it comes to supervising members of various generations at your practice, recognize the differences, but also strive to find common ground among staff.

The topic of managing multiple generations in the workforce has fascinated me since the time that there were only three generations represented. Now, depending on how the generations are categorized, we have to deal with four or even five groups of workers with distinct experiences, communication preferences, and core values affecting work and life. It is truly a human resource challenge.

What are the generations? They come by many names - Veterans, Traditionals, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Linksters - and there is disagreement among sources as to what the time periods are that are covered by each category. Reliable Plant, a maintenance and manufacturing company, defines five generations as follows:

• Traditionals: Born before 1945, these workers have been influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. They tend to be loyal, respectful of authority, stubbornly independent, and dependable, and have excellent work ethics, and communication and interpersonal skills.

• Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, this is the Woodstock generation, influenced by the Vietnam War, the 60s, and post-war social change. Baby boomers are inclined to be well-educated, question authority, have excellent teamwork skills, and like adrenaline-charged assignments.

• Gen X: Born between 1964 and 1980, this is the Latchkey Generation, frequently the product of divorced parents. They are independent, family-focused, critical, hardworking, socially responsible, and intolerant of bureaucracy.

• Gen Y (sometimes called Millenials): Born between 1981 and 1995, often considered the Entitled Generation. They have been influenced by technology and doting parents. They are highly socialized, loyal, technologically savvy, socially responsible, and require a good work-life balance.

• Linksters: Born after 1995. This is the Facebook crowd, who has been influenced by a media-saturated world. They are technologically dependent, closely tied to their parents, tolerant of alternative lifestyles, and involved in green causes and social activism.

It can be dangerous to pigeon-hole workers into one of these categories, especially since there is little agreement on what time period exactly is represented by each, but keeping in mind the potential differences can go a long way toward helping the HR manager or supervisor think about how to approach their staff, and may provide some understanding when coworkers can’t seem to get along. Too often we have been taught that we should treat all our employees the same, and that "different strokes for different folks" is an attitude that will get us into trouble. However, when I look at the definitions listed above I see that there is not much merit to the notion that you can get results by treating everyone alike, although this may be a difficult notion for those of us who are Traditionals or Baby Boomers.

Books have been written on this extensive subject, but just summarizing some of the differences among generations can be very enlightening when considering how employees may be approaching their work and their supervisor. For example, the Harvard Business Reviewsays that by 2014, Millenials will account for nearly half the employees in the world. These workers have a reputation as attention sponges. They want constant feedback and are in a hurry for success. A sense of purpose is a key factor in a Millenial’s job satisfaction, probably because they tend to view work as a key part of life, rather than a separate activity that needs to be balanced with their personal life. Compare this to the feedback and reward needs of a Traditional for whom no news is good news, and whose incentive is a job well done. If a supervisor doesn’t recognize these differences they may drive their employees (and themselves) crazy.

One of the areas I like to look at is communication. Traditionals grew up with rotary phones and one-on-one communication. Generation X and Generation Y probably can’t remember a time without cell phones and instant messaging via the Internet. My sons are both Generation Y. When they were young, in frustration over the cordless phone always being lost or stuffed down in the couch cushions, my husband dug an old rotary phone (with a cord!) out of the garage and exchanged it for the cordless phone. Both sons stood looking at it for the longest time before one finally asked how it worked.

Even if we avoid stereotyping our employees and resist the temptation to look at each one and categorize them into one or the other generation, just acknowledging that these differences exist can help us find common ground. Instead of reacting to the differences that separate people, more can be gained by recognizing what binds them together. Not all differences found in the workplace are generational, so it makes sense to create environments that work for all the generations.

These three approaches, although especially well-suited to a specific generation, are pertinent across generational lines (via Herman Miller):

Be authentic. Baby Boomers put high value on keeping things real. Years of experience have taught them to detect insincerity, but the 60s and 70s mantra of "tell it like it is" still applies.

Be creative. Gen Xers see themselves as the force behind the technological innovations that have transformed the world and the world of work. They are inspired by originality, creativity, and imagination.

Be connected. Despite their ease with technology and electronic connections, Millenials also seek personal interaction and participation that face-to-face communication makes possible. They’re comfortable connecting both ways, even at the same time.

If we are to be successful as managers of these multigenerational workplaces we need to meet varying needs and personalities. One size fits all no longer works.