Financial Leadership

4 generations under one roof: How leaders should interact with a multigenerational workforce

January 22, 2021 12:48 am

Note: This article was updated July 22.

  • Learning how to manage employees spanning four different generations is one of the top challenges facing leaders today, especially in healthcare.
  • Generations offer powerful clues as to how leaders can connect with and influence different members of a workforce.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic may affect employees differently based on their generation.

Intergenerational dynamics affect the workforce in healthcare perhaps even more than in other industries, and those factors have only gained significance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At HFMA’s Digital Annual Conference, attendees heard from one of the field’s leading researchers about how they can help team members of all generations perform at their best.

“You are leading probably three, maybe even four generations. And what nobody talks about is you’re also serving five different generations,” Jason Dorsey, president of The Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK), said during a featured presentation July 17. The session was sponsored by Parallon.

Generations offer clues for how leaders can:

  • Make connections
  • Build trust
  • Drive influence

“I would argue in revenue cycle leadership, the ability to quickly and effectively connect, build and maintain trust and drive influence is absolutely essential to what you do,” Dorsey said. Generational designations “give you a head start, they give you these clues, to be able to drive those outcomes. That’s what makes them powerful and exciting.”

Jason Dorsey, Center for Generational Kinetics

Taking stock of generations in your workforce

Leaders should understand that every generation brings something valuable, Dorsey said, with a mix of skills, experience and worldviews.

Generation Z (1996-2015). As they hit their mid-20s, older members of this generation are starting to become more prominent in the workforce. Having grown up as their parents were enduring the Great Recession, they tend to be frugal, Dorsey said. “They’re savers.”

Millennials (1977-95). Unlike Gen Z, millennials weren’t focused on being careful with their money as they entered adulthood. “Millennials are being held back by college debt,” Dorsey said. “At the same time, many of them are trying to figure out what to do with credit. They’ve delayed all kinds of major life commitments — everything from marriage to kids to buying a home. We call it delayed adulthood.”

Dorsey sees a generational split happening among millennials after they hit 30. Some fall into a category he calls “Mega-llenials,” who are “doing everything they’re supposed to be doing.” The other, “Me-llenials,” are “struggling to create that real-world traction.”

Generation X (1965-76). Some members of this generation were known as “latchkey kids,” having been raised while the divorce rate was surging. Today, “Gen X is naturally skeptical. Their attitude is [that] actions speak louder than words,” Dorsey said.

The generation’s role in the workforce is pivotal. “Nobody talks about Gen X, and they are incredibly important,” Dorsey said. “They’re the bridge between the different generations.”

Baby boomers (1946-64). As the most represented age group in senior leadership, this generation remains the most influential in the workforce. Members “often define themselves by their work ethic, which creates all kinds of issues with other generations who don’t,” Dorsey said.  

Their feeling also is, “You must pay your dues — and they believe in policies, procedures, protocols.”

The impact of COVID-19 on generations

Whereas the millennial generation was defined by 9-11, Dorsey said, the pandemic is the generation-defining moment for Gen Z.

For their part, millennials are reeling from the second macroeconomic shock of their careers, having entered the workforce near the time of the Great Recession.

Gen X members are getting pulled in various directions, potentially caring for both children and parents while also holding down a job.

Baby boomers are most likely to have taken unpaid time off and dip into their retirement accounts. As a result, they can be expected to remain in the workforce as long as possible, Dorsey said, meaning “you’re going to see bottlenecks all the way down” organizational hierarchies.

Engaging with video-based platforms in recent months has been smooth sailing for many but a big adjustment for others, Dorsey said. In a survey conducted by CGK, 49% said they had used video chat for the first time in the last 30 days.

Leaders should make sure to inquire whether team members have the tools they need to work remotely. Four in 10 respondents reported lacking the necessary tools, and some don’t think to ask for them. “And it turns out the tools they often need are super-cheap,” Dorsey said. “A $50 solution can make that whole work situation much better.”

Generational views on what makes a good leader

Dorsey’s research suggests that perceptions of what it means to be a good leader in the current environment don’t match up to what employees actually want. In the CGK  survey, conducted in late April, the most sought-after traits by employees were:

  • Being honest and candid: 35%
  • Communicating clearly: 34%
  • Caring and empathetic: 25%
  • Being well-informed: 25%
  • Being well-prepared: 21%

“So much of the conventional wisdom out there is you’ve got to be strong and show you’re resilient — that’s what your team needs now,” Dorsey said. However, showing strength and resilience didn’t even place in the top 10.

Regarding the need for leaders to be caring and empathetic, people might assume the biggest proponents are millennials. In fact, they selected that trait less often than any other generation. They were more likely than other generations to select being well-prepared and quickly solving problems.

Empathy was much more likely to be prioritized by Gen Z members, who ranked it No. 2 behind being well-informed. “Millennials got made into a meme about empathy — [as if] we all need group hugs,” Dorsey said, but the data tells a different story.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers prize honesty and transparency. “They’re basically saying, ‘Hey, I’ve lived through a lot. Just tell me the truth, give it to me straight, and I’ll be able to figure out what I need to do.’”

Another bit of conventional wisdom that doesn’t pan out is the idea that the most effective managers are roughly the same age as their team members. “That’s totally not true,” Dorsey said. “It’s all about who adapts to lead.” 

6 steps to help leaders connect with all generations

Dorsey provided best practices that leaders should consider implementing to effectively manage members of every generation:

Provide specific examples of the performance you expect. Leaders should remember that new hires may not have much experience in healthcare. They may make mistakes that drain their managers’ time and derail workflows. Providing training using videos or images that illustrate responsibilities is time-saving and allows new employees to learn faster. Furthermore, “You can hold them accountable,” Dorsey said.

Share — and repeat — your North Star. A health system CEO may promote the organization’s vision, but managers and direct supervisors play crucial roles in reinforcing the message. “If that frontline manager doesn’t repeat it and echo it, then [employees] don’t trust it,” Dorsey said. Top executives should make a point of communicating that responsibility.

Offer communication aligned with each generation. Leaders should stay in touch with their team members frequently through text, chat or email. They should be sensitive to trepidation among younger employees, in particular, about whether a lack of communication indicates their job may be in jeopardy, Dorsey said. Gen Z and millennials prefer text and chat as modes of communication and may only read the subject line of an email. 

Recognize that how you let go of employees determines the attitudes of those who stay. Remaining employees may think, “Is that how they’re going to treat me if they have to let me go? Is that their true colors?” Keeping employees engaged and motivated becomes even more important after layoffs “because you’re trying to do more with less,” Dorsey said.

Be clear and consistent on non-negotiables. In the revenue cycle, these might include principles that guide interactions with consumers. “When people are working at home in their sweatpants, it’s easy to forget sometimes what those non-negotiables are,” Dorsey said. 

Deliver quick-impact feedback to maintain trust with younger employees. Quick modes of engagement such as text messaging help team members stay motivated and excited, Dorsey said. “It takes you five, 10, 15 seconds to let them know you’re thinking about them one day a week, and that may carry them for two, three, four, five weeks.”


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