In today’s dynamic nursing environment, we are seeing four generations, creating a remarkable “cross-pollination” of RNs from across the Traditionalist (Veteran), Baby Boomer, Generation X (“Gen X”), and Generation Y (“Millennial”) generations. Each generation brings unique experiences, skills, and worldviews to core workplace issues such as work ethic, perception of authority, leadership, and working relationships.
Healthcare administrators and executives often struggle with how to effectively develop and nurture a culture of understanding and acceptance of multigenerational differences within a diverse workforce. Here are some strategies that will help strengthen the cohesiveness within nursing teams.
Recognize the opportunity
Nursing leaders must recognize and seize the opportunity that a multigenerational workforce provides to create an environment that is rich with the exchange of varying values, ethics, and perceptions. Broadly speaking, Traditionalists value hard work, respect authority, and often are stoic in the face of increasing workloads. Baby Boomers are optimistic and seek opportunities to work in teams.
Gen Xers, by contrast, were often raised in homes with two working parents and developed greater self-reliance. As a result, they often value working independently and informally. Millennials, typically raised in nurturing environments, thrive in high-feedback settings and are very confident and successful at multitasking.
While these are simplistic portraits to illustrate each generation’s differences, they highlight the responsibility of the institution to create an environment in which everyone understands and respects one another.
Despite their differences, each group has a great deal of value to offer. Boomers and veterans can share their accumulated knowledge, intuition, and wisdom, and those in this generation demonstrate a dependable, altruistic work ethic. Gen Xers will be very self-reliant and productive while managing their preferences for work-life balance. They are experts at asking the right questions to move a project forward and accomplish a task. Millennials often take an entrepreneurial approach and model a new way of driving with tenacity toward a goal while still having fun.
Build the right environment
By creating a “synergistic culture,” nursing leaders can build an environment where each major demographic group shares and gains enriching insights, wisdom, and perspectives from their peers. Within such an environment, nursing leaders can emphasize common organizational and cultural issues and nonjudgmental behaviors that encourage greater mutual understanding. The following guiding principles and strategies will promote an environment of understanding and acceptance.
See through the other’s eyes—It is paramount to teach staff to consider the other person’s situation and viewpoint and attempt to view any situation from that generation’s perspective.
Assume positive intent and common goals—Recognize that people with different perspectives and opinions all share the same intentions and goals. For example, amid conflict surrounding generational differences, all generations can agree on the goal of providing safe, competent, and compassionate care. Teach staff to assume others have positive intentions in their actions and opinions.
Resist imposing or judging personal values—A Baby Boomer’s hard-driving work ethic may not mesh with a Gen Xer’s desire for work-life balance. Neither is right or wrong—they are simply different approaches/perspectives. Seeking to understand versus judging the other person’s values or viewpoint will provide a strong foundation for collaboration.
Balance group maintenance and group tasks
Given nurses’ varied work experiences and backgrounds—and the desire to optimize how teams work together—nursing leaders must learn to move back and forth in managing the task and the process in interactions. The leader observes the way the nursing team members interact with each other and asks clarifying questions, shares feedback about process, and helps identify attitudes and behaviors that may help or hinder the group.
Use a variety of communication methods
Mutual respect is a critical factor in mitigating conflict fueled by multigenerational undercurrents. A key strategy, to develop mutual respect, is simply engaging the workforce in direct and honest conversations about their generational differences. Conversation can raise awareness, identify stereotypes and judgments in play, and identify mutual expectations.
For Gen Xers and Millennials, electronic communication through e-mail is, by far, the most common and preferred method for communication. But in the hands of a Traditional (Veteran) nurse, a smart phone may go unused—she or he is likely looking for updates and information from memos and corkboard postings.
Communicate the same information through multiple channels to ensure complete coverage across your entire nursing staff. Eliminate the gaps by tacking up memos, conducting staff meetings, and sending the same information in broadcast e-mails.
Adopt a range of retention strategies
While the traditional career ladder has long held a motivational appeal among Baby Boomer nurses, they are now reaching retirement age. In their place are two generations of nurses who are looking at their elders, and increasingly rejecting what they view as a stressful and unfulfilling traditional career path. Instead, they are more interested in work-life balance. A promotion from “Clinical Nurse 1” to “Clinical Nurse 2” simply does not hold the appeal to the new generation of nurses. Flexibility and work-life balance are trumping those incentives. Focus your employment and compensation policies on balance, liberal job-sharing, and scheduling. Programs such as succession plans and professional development portfolios are appealing to a wider range in the younger generational groups.
Mentoring for new graduate hires is a critical success strategy that contributes to retention. A research study by Pauline Beecroft and colleagues found that most new graduates reported mentors provide guidance and feedback and were a stress reducer—providing that they met regularly. They also reported that being older was a factor influencing the likelihood of the mentor being a stress reducer.
Leverage the differences
Take full advantage of the generational differences in each demographic’s working styles. Put your team-oriented Baby Boomers on task forces and committees where they can help share governance. Gen Xers, who like individual challenges and ask lots of questions, are ideal for clinical practice issues or quality-assurance initiatives. Millennials, who are often motivated by participation and feedback, can be good resources for designing and implementing incentive programs.
Resist stereotyping by generation
In addition to generation, individuals are also influenced by family values incorporated at an early age and by their current life stage. For example, nurses raising young children are interested in scheduling flexibility, child-care arrangements, and other accommodations, regardless of their generational group. Also, a young Millennial may be very hard working and stoic about increasing workloads if those behaviors and values were rewarded by family members during their formative years.
Successful generational blending
Changes in nursing demographics are an opportunity to create a healthy environment of acceptance and collaboration that is rich with blended points of view. Gone are the days of “I paid my dues, so you have to pay yours” or tolerance of an “eat your young” mentality. Those behaviors simply will not work to create an environment of retention.
For savvy healthcare institutions, the blending of different generations of nurses presents an unprecedented opportunity to create strength from diversity. By taking the time to carefully understand the strengths and needs of each group, and building programs, policies, and practices that effectively reach nurses at every stage of their careers and lives, nursing executives can derive tremendous advantages—for their staff, their institution, and the patients they serve.
Nancy Mercier is a consultant for Versant Holdings, LLC, Ithaca, New York.
Beecroft P, Santner S, Lacy ML, et al. New graduate nurses’ perceptions of mentoring: six-year programme evaluation. J Adv Nurs. 2006;55(6):736-47.
Burke ME. SHRM Generational Differences Survey Report: A Study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM Surveys series). August 2005:9.
Foley V, Myrick F, Yonge O. Generational clashpoints in nursing preceptorship. J Nurs Educ. 2010;51(10):556-62.