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Published 8/1/2009
George V. Russell Jr., MD

Managing across the generations

Adapt your style to engage your staff, partners

Have you or your staff ever had difficulties communicating? Do you feel that you are unable to reach younger workers? Do you feel that your older managers do not relate well to you?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you may be having trouble working across the generational divide. As discussed in a previous article (“Are you an ‘old coot’ or a ‘young whippersnapper’?AAOS Now, July 2009), the current workforce includes the following four generations:

  • Matures—born prior to 1946
  • Baby Boomers—born from 1946–1964
  • Generation Xers—born from 1965–1979
  • Millennials—born from 1985–2000

Each generation has particular defining characteristics that can be referenced and used to promote a harmonious, productive work force.

Keeping members of the Mature generation fully engaged with the changing work place is important, particularly because they have years of practical experience. Do not accept the stereotype that older workers are too old or are not interested in learning new skills. Offer them learning experiences such as the opportunity to participate in conferences, Webinars, and other developmental programs.

Do create goals for your Mature workers that are every bit as ambitious as those for other members of the team. Be sure that everyone is held accountable for achieving goals.

Develop information transfer plans. You don’t want to lose the practical experience and wisdom that Mature employees have. Formal programs that link Mature employees with younger employees—such as mentoring and job shadowing—will help ensure that the knowledge of the Mature generation is not lost.

Baby Boomers
Currently, Baby Boomers control most leadership positions within organizations. They, along with the Matures, are challenged with incorporating new ideas and different expectations into an established system for the continued success of an organization. Showing respect for their years of service, skills, knowledge, and wisdom is key to successfully managing Baby Boomers.

As with Matures, you should honor the historical memory of Baby Boomers. Their experiences with the past can prove beneficial to explain current situations. For example, placing current policies in a historical perspective may facilitate understanding and acceptance by these employees.

Recognition is very important for Baby Boomer employees. Recognize achievements personally and publicly. Listening to their ideas and suggestions is another way that you can recognize the contributions of individuals. Embrace and encourage implementation of their best ideas.

Because Baby Boomers are moved by conflicting desires—wishing to compete as individuals and at the same time be part of a team—at least one text recommends that the best strategy “may be to convince them that focusing on the team in the short term is the most effective way to distinguish themselves in the long term.”

Generation Xers
As technology has become more pervasive in business operations, the Generation Xers have been able to challenge the master-apprentice system. Their familiarity with technology has enabled this generation to control a critical aspect of business. Because many Gen Xers grew up unsupervised, they developed a “fend-for-myself” attitude that persists in the work force.

To succeed as a manager of Gen Xers, you need to provide opportunities for them to learn marketable skills. These younger employees are less loyal to companies than their predecessors. They must feel that they are learning skills for self-enrichment or they will not stay.

Another option is to offer flexible work arrangements. Gen Xers place increased importance on life outside of work. Although Gen Xers find work fulfilling, it is not the defining process for them, as it was for the Baby Boomers. Flexibility in the work place is essential for these younger individuals. (You may find that Baby Boomers and Matures also appreciate flexible work arrangements that enable them to spend time with grandchildren or elderly parents.)

As a manager of Gen Xers, you should adopt a coaching style. This generation is more loyal to individuals than to companies. Access to mentors who coach instead of dictate will facilitate the development of long-term employee-mentor loyalty that indirectly leads to company loyalty.

Like Gen Xers, Millenials are independent and entrepreneurial, relishing responsibility and control of their time. Yet, they also demand immediate feedback and expect to feel a sense of accomplishment regularly.

The employee-manager relationship is much more important for members of the Millenial generation than for other generations currently in the workforce. Millenial employees have very high expectations for their managers.

To create a productive work environment for Millenials, you should get to know them as individuals and be aware of their individual capabilities. Listen and engage this generation. Show them that you genuinely care about their successes—both inside and outside the work place. According to one text, you should “make building those relationships as much a managerial imperative as accomplishing results.”

Like Gen Xers, Millenials respond to coaching relationships. Managers should not only direct tasks, but also help these young individuals grow and improve. If you implement flexible scheduling, however, you should hold the Millenial employee as accountable as any other member of the work group.

Finally, consistently provide constructive feedback. Observe and give immediate feedback. Avoid harping on the negative and consistently acknowledge the positive.

Take it a step further
Bridging these four disparate generations into a cohesive productive work unit presents unique challenges. Although the potential for conflict is considerable, the potential for success is far greater if you appreciate the differences and implement strategies to bridge the generational divide.

For more information on managing across the generations, check the AAOS online Practice Management Center (www.aaos.org/pracman). Two good texts on the issue include Managing the Generation Mix by Carolyn A. Martin, PhD, and Bruce Tulgan (HRD Press, 2006) and Motivating the “What’s In It For Me?” Workforce: Manage across the Generational Divide and Increase Profits by Cam Marston (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007).

George V. Russell Jr., MD, is a graduate of the AAOS Leadership Fellows Program and serves on the Practice Management Committee. He can be reached at gvrussell@orthopedics.umsmed.edu