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Managing Multigenerational Teams in Healthcare


Healthcare organizations are leading increasingly diverse teams, and age is one element of that diversity. Today, healthcare organizations are composed of as many as four generations — and provide care for as many as seven generations.

Diversity has been well-established as a strategic advantage for organizations of all kinds, including in the healthcare industry. However, with vastly different life experiences, values, and beliefs across generations, conflicts can detract from the benefits of diverse ages. To get the best results from your team, leadership needs to understand the challenges that are likely to arise when an organization is composed of multiple generations.

Here, we’ll explore the challenges of managing a multigenerational healthcare workforce, the strategic advantages that generational diversity can bring to healthcare organizations, and tips for improving multigenerational relationships in the workplace.

Multigenerational Workforce Challenges in Healthcare

Each generation’s vastly different life experiences can create distinct challenges. Some of the areas in which healthcare organizations commonly see friction between generations include the following:

Differing Communication Styles

“FYI, we need an RN in the ED.” Modern communication and healthcare combine to create an impressively confusing collection of abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. Yet the confusion caused by shorthand like this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Each generation in the modern workplace has experienced and grown accustomed to different communication styles. Baby Boomers and Gen X have spent most of their careers communicating through 1:1 channels: face-to-face, over the phone, and by email. On the other hand, Millennials and Gen Z were early adopters and natives of instant messaging platforms and social networks, which have reshaped how people communicate personally and professionally. Navigating these communication styles presents a significant challenge for healthcare organizations and leaders.

How clinicians and leaders communicate in a multigenerational healthcare setting is essential for meeting strategic targets and providing quality care to patients. What that communication looks like is ultimately less important than whether it conveys the right message in the right manner at the right time. However, doing so in multigenerational teams is easier said than done.

Ageism and Biases Lurk Under the Surface

Ageism doesn’t carry the same sinister connotation associated with other exclusionary biases, yet it has the same potential to disrupt high-performing teams. Strategic decisions related to hiring and promotions based on age can signal to teams and individuals that they are undervalued in the organization.

Identifying and overcoming age-related unconscious biases is difficult because they’re often less discernible than others. However, failing to root them out can significantly impact your healthcare organization’s staff retention rates, patient outcomes, and strategic direction.

Leaders Must Understand and Account for Varying Expectations and Beliefs About Work

Combined with identities and life experiences, it’s clear that different generations have different expectations for work and notions of how employees should behave in the workplace. For example, there are significant differences across generations regarding the value of loyalty in a professional setting. Many Baby Boomers have spent several decades in a single organization. Meanwhile, Gen Z and Millennial healthcare professionals — who may not have even been born when Baby Boomers started their careers — have been rewarded for jumping between employers. These differing attitudes can create friction between multigenerational members of a healthcare organization’s team.

Additionally, different generations conceptualize work differently, and there’s variation even among generations. Younger generations, like Gen Z and Millennials, seek to derive fulfillment from their professional careers more deliberately than Baby Boomers, for whom work-related fulfillment may have come more naturally. Younger generations often place particularly high value on factors like an organization’s impact on its community or various causes.

These differences in values and expectations across generations mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to motivating healthcare teams will not be effective. Instead, leaders need to be capable of striking the chords that will resonate with each generation.

Varying Levels of Experience

Naturally, clinicians who have been in healthcare for decades have significantly more clinical experience than Gen Z clinicians who are just entering the workforce. Yet, beneath the surface, other types of experience vary across generations.

For example, Millennials and Gen Z clinicians have grown up with technology. Digital environments have shaped their lives, and they have deep wells of experience in these areas compared to older generations. Differing experience levels with technology can make a generation more or less willing to adopt changes to technical infrastructure like electronic health records (EHRs). This can create divisions among clinical teams, with one group advocating for an unfamiliar system that will disrupt existing processes and the other group resisting a potentially uncomfortable change.  

Additionally, each generation experienced the healthcare industry differently when they entered the workforce. For Gen Z clinicians, patient loads are significantly higher than when their Baby Boomer and Gen X colleagues entered the workforce. Subtle differences in experience like this can create an empathy gap: Baby Boomers didn’t struggle when they entered the workforce, so why is it so hard for Gen Z?

The challenges of varying communication preferences, age-related biases, values, and professional experience can create divisions across multigenerational healthcare teams. Modern healthcare leaders must find different, novel ways to connect with clinicians across generations to build trust, bridge gaps, and align teams to work toward a singular strategic goal.

Four Advantages of Generational Diversity

Despite the challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce, diversity is a massive opportunity. Healthcare organizations that can leverage each generation’s unique skills and experiences stand to gain a competitive advantage by increasing care quality, efficiently implementing strategic initiatives, and attracting quality candidates across the care continuum.

Noteworthy advantages of multigenerational teams include:

1. Leveraging Younger Generations’ Technological Agility Can Modernize Healthcare Organizations

Younger generations like Millennials and Generation Z are exceedingly agile when adopting new technologies. This can be a significant asset for healthcare organizations during rapid change — whether transitioning to new EHR systems, implementing virtual care models, or modernizing administrative systems.

As previously noted, these gaps in technological agility can create friction between teams. However, younger team members can support clinicians who are reluctant to make such changes or need help adapting to new processes.

2. Combining Multigenerational Skills Can Lead to Innovation

The varied skill sets across generations can foster innovative solutions that might not emerge in a more homogenous age group. For example, the deep knowledge of healthcare practices that Generation X and Baby Boomers possess can be combined with cutting-edge technological solutions understood and implemented by Millennials and Gen Z, leading to the development of more efficient methods of patient care delivery.

For example, by utilizing patient data and lived clinician experience, healthcare organizations can develop tools to identify patients at risk for certain health complications or comorbidities. This can help clinicians from each generation support each other, minimize risks, and improve patient outcomes.

3. Multigenerational Teams Can Integrate Emotional and Social Intelligence Into Care Delivery

Older generations and their experiences bring a high level of emotional and social intelligence critical for managing teams and comforting patients during intensely stressful periods. Baby Boomers’ and Generation X’s experience navigating the complexities of human emotions in the healthcare setting can be pivotal for mentoring younger colleagues on managing stress and developing strong patient relationships.

Likewise, younger generations like Gen Z are tuned into rapidly changing social norms related to identity. Sharing this cultural competence across multigenerational teams can foster greater patient trust, vital for providing quality care and maintaining a positive patient experience.

4. Multigenerational Teams Create Opportunities for Professional Growth

One of the most significant advantages of multigenerational teams in healthcare settings is the potential for professional growth. By capitalizing on a multigenerational workforce’s diverse experiences and skills, healthcare organizations can facilitate knowledge sharing and skill development across age groups.

Implementing a mentorship program in your organization is a great way to drive this kind of professional growth formally. Veteran healthcare providers can share invaluable insights from decades in the industry, including patient care nuances, ethical decision-making, and crisis management. At the same time, younger clinicians can share their knowledge of emerging technologies and practices. Mentorships enhance professional development for both clinicians regardless of age and can foster a culture of continuous improvement and respect for diverse competencies.

Interestingly, mentorship programs can also be structured in different ways. While pairing an older, experienced clinician with a younger, less experienced clinician is valuable, pairing two young clinicians can also be immensely beneficial in the face of modern healthcare challenges like retention and recruitment.

As new clinicians enter the care environment, having a peer to provide feedback, support, and advice can be extremely valuable. By pairing a clinician 2-3 years into their career with someone who has just joined the workforce, healthcare organizations can improve their onboarding processes and retention strategy while building mutual support and trust among teams.

When healthcare organizations create ways to leverage their multigenerational teams’ experiences and foster growth, they can assure that their teams are ready for the challenges of modern healthcare.

Five Tips for Managing Multigenerational Teams in Healthcare

Managing multigenerational healthcare teams requires strategic efforts emphasizing fairness, collaboration, and communication. Here’s how organizations can implement these strategies effectively:

1. Develop Objective Criteria for Hires and Promotions

To build a meritocratic and inclusive professional environment, healthcare organizations should establish clear, objective criteria for hiring and promoting staff. By setting standardized benchmarks related to job performance and professional growth, such as clinical competencies, leadership skills, and collaborative skills, healthcare organizations can minimize the risk of age-related biases impacting their hiring and promotion decisions.

2. Encourage Collaboration Across Teams and Experience Levels

Healthcare organizations should encourage and facilitate collaboration whenever possible to harness each generation’s unique strengths and skill sets. This can lead to innovative solutions and improve team cohesion, with team members learning to value different perspectives and types of expertise.

3. Value Input from All Clinicians

Leaders must actively seek input from clinicians of all ages. Using the right platforms to elicit feedback, from regular meetings and suggestion boxes to surveys and digital communication platforms, can make it easier for each generation to make their opinions known.

By acknowledging and acting on the input from team members across generations, healthcare leaders can enhance engagement and drive retention by reinforcing each clinician’s significance within the organization, regardless of age.

4. Invest in Communication

Effective communication is vital to managing any team. Communication is even more critical within multigenerational teams, and again more so in multigenerational healthcare teams that are managing increasingly complex patients.

Leaders should adapt their communication styles to meet the preferences of different generations, whether through face-to-face meetings, emails, or digital messaging. Additionally, setting clear expectations for how certain communications should happen can help staff members standardize communications, leading to better mutual understanding and fewer conflicts.

5. Maintain Visibility and Accessibility as a Leader

Leaders of multigenerational healthcare teams should strive to be visible and accessible to all clinical staff. This includes being physically present during rounding and being approachable for informal conversations.

Being accessible allows leaders to stay informed about their teams’ challenges and identify issues early. Visibility and accessibility are also essential traits for leaders, as it enables information to flow transparently across generational and hierarchical lines.

Generational differences will always influence workplace dynamics and relationships, yet by focusing on these fundamental communication strategies, healthcare leaders can resonate with and effectively manage multigenerational teams.

Related read: Four Vital Pillars for Effective Leadership in Healthcare

Need a Leader for Any and Every Generation? Turn to Kirby Bates Associates

Healthcare is rapidly changing. For your organization to excel, you need leaders capable of engaging diverse teams. With them, your organization can avoid costly attrition, difficulties attracting clinical staff, and divisions among staff that reduce efficiency and put patient safety at risk.

Finding exemplary leadership is more challenging than ever. Yet, when care quality and financial sustainability are on the line, your organization can’t afford to settle for leaders who are ‘good enough.’ You need the right fit. Fortunately, Kirby Bates Associates can help.

With over 30 years of experience identifying leaders and providing interim leadership services, Kirby Bates knows the qualities that define strategic, innovative healthcare leaders. If your organization struggles to unite and lead a multigenerational workforce, our healthcare executive recruiters and nurse executive recruiters can translate that challenge into competencies and find the candidates who possess them.

To learn more about how we can help you find the leadership your organization needs, get in touch with our team today!