Embrace your staff’s generational differences

Part two of our series on leadership shows how to manage the in-office dynamic of a diverse staff.


My peers often ask me, “How do you engage Millennials, Hayley? They’re a pain in the you-know-what at my practice!” I have a particularly beneficial perspective on addressing generational differences in practices — because I happen to be a Millennial. When I state this, I typically hear, “But you’re so different than these other Millennials!”

Here’s a little secret: I’m not all that different from this “insufferable generation,” which is probably why I can move beyond the “sticking points” of four different generations to an amazing “sweet spot” where we have come together as one Team Boling.

Before you roll your eyes or express your skepticism, hear out Harvard Business Review author Monique Valcour, PhD: “There is an intergenerational sweet spot we should aim for, a point of maximum engagement for all employees. But we miss it by fixating on minor differences and taking them out of context.”

Our team has learned how to tolerate and respect one another and discovered a synergy between generations that makes us strong and dynamic.

From sticking points

Our generations have some distinguishable differences to acknowledge; however, I’ve found they don’t have to be deal breakers for our practices. Rather than just “dealing with” your younger employees, understand that the diversity between generations can actually add depth to your team.

In my practice, we talk a lot about situational leadership. We understand that part of our role as leaders is to ensure that all individuals are successful in their roles. Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all model. We must adopt a flexible approach so that we can lead the people on our team, no matter their generation.

So, what can you do to lead the individuals in your practice more effectively? Haydn Shaw, a generation expert, leadership guru, and the author of “Sticking Points,” highlights 12 major differences between generations in his book.

Here are the four that were the “stickiest” for my team:

1. Communication

The way we prefer to communicate with others can certainly be a generational sticking point if not addressed up front. Some still value formal face-to-face meetings and in-person conversations, while others don’t even want to pick up their cell phones and prefer email, texting, and social media platforms for communication.

This doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier, though. Ask team members about their preferences, and then let them know how you prefer to communicate on specific topics. If they express a preference to different methods (which is likely), determine what to do as the leader to accommodate the needs of your team while still communicating efficiently, effectively, and consistently.

In my practice, we communicate in a number of ways depending on the content of the message and for whom the message is intended. For quick and easy topics, texts and emails suffice. For any type of emotionally driven matter with room for potential misinterpretation, I always take the time to connect in person or over the phone.

Knowing when to communicate electronically vs. face-to-face takes some time to master; however, as you build trust with your team by communicating effectively with them, communication across multiple mediums becomes more natural.

2. Work ethic

While older generations have a “live to work” mentality, putting in long hours in a traditional work setting, younger generations “work to live” and definitely value balance in their lives. For Millennials, this may mean flexibility for the positions that allow for it, since a great deal of work can be completed anywhere and at any time these days.

For our practice-bound positions (technicians, front office, opticians), we allow job sharing, flexible schedules, and shifts that provide long weekends (four 10-hour shifts, off on Fridays). For back-office positions (billing, call center, marketing/business development), we allow individuals to work from anywhere they have a secure workstation.

In essence, we strive to provide opportunities that fit the lives of our team, no matter their generation. It’s a bit more effort for management up front; however, it really demonstrates our commitment to our people, which further solidifies loyalty and overall team engagement.

3. Feedback

Your staff members may view feedback from leadership quite differently depending on their generation. For Traditionalists, no news is good news. For Boomers, feedback is expected annually during formal reviews. For Gen Xers, occasional feedback and touchpoints are perfectly sufficient. Millennials need feedback early and often and enjoy throwing their ideas into the mix as well. This does not require lengthy conversations. They just want to ensure that their efforts are contributing to something bigger than themselves, are adding value, and that they’re on the right track.

Be willing to adjust your approach to meet these needs by touching base with your workers outside of formal review time. If they are missing the mark, tell them. If they are doing a great job, tell them that too. And take time to listen to their feedback — a fresh set of eyes can be a perfect starting point for practice improvements.

4. Loyalty

Millennials are perceived to be job-hoppers who show little-to-no loyalty to employers. Ms. Valcour notes, however, that large-scale studies have found “only slight differences in the job attitudes and values of Millennials and members of older generations.”

Still, we need to be sure that we offer clear career pathways that will compliment Millennials’ education while also providing opportunities for them to be connected to a cause. My practice has an entire committee dedicated to identifying opportunities for purpose, belonging, and social impact, which has helped us develop loyalty throughout all represented generations.

To the sweet spot

For years, I have been incredibly intentional about getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. Although I have made a point to appreciate and respect all generations on my team, I have also made a point to update our practice to ensure sustainability long after we all retire.

When I arrived nine years ago, I wasn’t the most well-liked CEO. I was accused of being too contemporary, too technology-driven, too young. I was that dreaded Millennial who came into a legacy practice, shook things up, and demanded more from the staff, but I believe that we are all better for it today.

This was confirmed for me when a 30-year employee said to me, “I finally understand why you led with the changes you did. They were necessary to get us to where we are now. I now realize that the people who couldn’t change really did need to go. I’m glad that I could adapt and grow and that I’ve been here to witness how far we’ve come with our young and old workers coming together as one. Thank you for seeing what we could be and not getting stuck on what we used to be.”

Getting to this point didn’t happen overnight. It took years of change management and explaining the “why” behind the “what” before my team truly understood, embraced and trusted the process. Realizing a synergy between generations, embracing our differences and further looking at them as opportunities for growth, is not only a fun thought for practices to dream about ... it’s truly possible. OP