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Leading a Multigenerational Nursing Workforce: Issues, Challenges and Strategies

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Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, CNAA

Abstract

Today’s nursing workforce is made up of staff and nursing leaders from four different generational cohorts. Generational diversity, including workforce differences in attitudes, beliefs, work habits, and expectations, has proven challenging for nursing leaders. The purpose of this article is to assist nursing leaders to reframe perceptions about generational differences and to view these differences in attitudes and behaviors as potential strengths. Developing the skill to view generational differences through a different lens will allow the leader to flex their leadership style, enhance quality and productivity, reduce conflict, and maximize the contributions of all staff. This article provides an overview of the generational cohorts and presents strategies which nursing leaders can use to coach and motivate, communication with, and reduce conflict for each generational cohort of nurses.

Citation: Sherman, R., (May 31, 2006). "Leading a Multigenerational Nursing Workforce: Issues, Challenges and Strategies". OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Vol. 11, No. 2, Manuscript 2.

DOI: 10.3912/OJIN.Vol11No02Man02

Key words: generational cohort, generational conflict, generational diversity, generational synergy, multigenerational nursing workforce, nursing leadership

Generational gaps have always been a part of our world, bringing with them the potential for flash points or areas of disagreement (Greene, 2005; Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000). Today’s nuaursing workforce presents unique leadership challenges as staff and nursing leaders from four generations representing different attitudes, beliefs, work habits, and experiences, work together on nursing teams.


Although four different generations in the workforce can present leadership challenges, the diversity can also add richness and strength...if staff members are valued...

The experience of having four generations in the workplace is uncharted territory for nursing leaders. Historically, working nurses (particularly in acute care settings) have either retired completely or cut back their hours between ages 53 and 56 (Thrall, 2005). Changes in life expectancy and retirement benefit plans appear to be shifting this traditional employment pattern. Buerhaus, Staiger, and Auerbach (2003) noted that the fastest growing segment of the RN labor market has come from the reentry of older nurses back into the workforce. This pattern is likely to continue as employers look to retain older nurses in the workforce to cope with a growing nursing shortage.

Nursing leaders should anticipate that the nursing workforce will continue to be age-diverse for many years to come. Although four different generations in the workforce can present leadership challenges, the diversity can also add richness and strength to the team if all staff members are valued for their contributions. In today’s highly competitive health care market, organizations and leaders that effectively manage their age-diverse workforce will enjoy a competitive edge (Dominguez, 2003). The purpose of this article is to assist nursing leaders to reframe perceptions about generational differences and to view these differences in attitudes and behaviors as potential strengths. Developing the skill to view generational differences through a different lens will allow the leader to flex their leadership style, enhance quality and productivity, reduce conflict, and maximize the contributions of all staff. This article provides an overview of the generational cohorts and presents strategies that nursing leaders can use to coach and motivate, communication with, and reduce conflict for each generational cohort of nurses.

The Generational Cohorts

Zemke et al. (2000) describe generational cohorts as groups of people who share birth years, history, and a collective personality as a result of their defining experiences. Generational profiles, while not infallible, help us to understand how the life experiences of a generation capture the attention and emotions of millions of individuals at a formative stage in their lives and ultimately affect personal core values. Although there is no absolute beginning or end to generational groups, they typically span 15 to 20 years. The historical, political, and social events experienced by generational cohorts help to define and shape their values, work ethics, attitudes toward authority, and professional aspirations (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004).

The four distinct generations in today’s workforce include the Veterans also referred to in the literature as Traditionalists or the Mature generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials sometimes described as the Net generation or generation Y (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Hart, 2006; Zemke et al., 2000). The generational characteristics of each cohort and their work-related characteristics will be described below.

The Veterans (1925-1945)

The Veterans grew up in difficult times with life experiences that included World War II and the Great Depression (Halfer, 2004; Zemke et al., 2000). The economic and political uncertainty that they experienced has led them to be hard working, financially conservative, and cautious

Veterans value the lessons of history. When facing new challenges, they look to the past for insight into what has worked and what hasn’t (Weston, 2001). Organizational loyalty is important to this generation, and they feel seniority is important to advance in one’s career (Carlson, 2005; Halfer, 2004; Ulrich, 2001). They tend to be respectful of authority, supportive of hierarchy, and disciplined in their work habits. Although as a group the Veterans have begun the transition to retirement, many nurses in this generation continue to work in all levels of nursing organizations.

The Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Baby Boomers grew up in a healthy post-war economy. Nuclear families were the norm. They were encouraged to value their individualism and express themselves creatively. Often described as the most egocentric generation, they have spent their lives rewriting the rules (Zemke et al., 2000).

The Baby Boomer generation is the largest cohort in the nursing workforce and currently occupies many nursing leadership positions (Buerhaus, Staiger, & Auerbach, 2000; Thrall, 2005). Baby Boomers are known for their strong work ethic, and work has been a defining part of both their self worth and their evaluation of others (Greene, 2005; Sherman, 2005). Significant numbers of Baby Boomer nurses will be eligible to retire beginning 2010 and nursing shortages on a very large scale are projected unless work is redesigned to retain this cohort in the workplace (Buerhaus et al., 2000; Krail, 2005).

Generation X (1963-1980)

The structure of the American family changed during the formative years of Generation X. Divorce rates increased significantly and many members of Generation X were raised in single parent households (Karp et al., 2002). This was the first generation where both parents were likely to work outside the home and many were raised as latchkey children. Their formative experiences including exposure to massive corporate layoffs have led them to value self reliance and work-life balance; they are described as less loyal to the corporate culture (Karp et al.). Technology underwent major advances during their formative years and has became an important part of their lives.

The Generation X cohort is significantly smaller than the Baby Boomers. During the 1990s, the profession of nursing had significant problems attracting Generation X members who saw nursing as not offering the career growth and entrepreneurial opportunities available in other jobs (Wieck, Prydun, & Walsh, 2002). However, many Generation Xers have now entered nursing as a second career.

The Millennial Generation (1980-2000)

The Millennials are the second largest generational cohort in the general population (Raines, 2002). They were raised in a time where violence, terrorism, and drugs became realities of life. Raised by parents who nurtured and structured their lives, they are drawn to their families for safety and security. They are a global generation and accept multiculturalism as a way of life. Technology and the instant communication made possible by cellular phones have always been part of their lives.

This generation is often compared to the Veterans in their values. A higher level of interest in nursing among this generation has been noted and applications to nursing programs significantly increased as they entered college (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2005). At present, this is the smallest cohort in the nursing workforce but the numbers of Millennials is growing.

Research Findings Relevant to Nursing Leadership

Although there is much information in the literature about generational differences, there are few descriptions addressing the ways current nursing leaders are actually managing their age- diverse workforces. Dominguez (2003), Chair of the U.S. Government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), noted that 66% of organizations surveyed by the EEOC had not even done an age profile of their workforce.

Yet nurse leaders play a pivotal role in creating a work environment that values generational differences and supports the needs of each individual. It is important that they recognize and act on generational differences in values and behaviors. Research findings described in the nursing and other literature can guide nurse leaders in structuring the work environment so as to accommodate the differing generational cultures. The following research findings are especially helpful in understanding work preference differences between Veteran and Baby Boomer nurses and the Generation X and Millennial Generation nurses. Wieck et al. (2002) studied what the emerging workforce of Generation X and Millennial nurses want in their nursing leaders. The characteristics of honesty, ability to motivate others, a positive outlook, good communication skills, an approachable demeanor, knowledge, and support were all ranked as having high importance. Chao (2005) noted that in a recent interview Sharon Jordan-Evans, a workforce expert, reported that employees under the age of 41 ranked work flexibility first in order of importance as compared to the Baby Boomer generation desire for meaningful work. Research by this author has indicated that the current nurse leaders’ work demands and compensation, which have been acceptable to Veterans and Baby Boomers, may not be conducive to attracting future generations to leadership positions in nursing (Sherman, 2005).

When reviewing the literature about generational cohorts in the nursing workforce, nurse leaders should use the information as a guidepost to establish leadership strategies. It is important to consider McNeese-Smith and Crock’s (2003) research report which suggested that the values of the four generations in the nursing workforce were not as divergent as sometimes reported in the general literature on the topic. Individuals within each generational cohort can be very different, and nurse leaders need to be cautious about generational stereotyping as they work with their staff (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004).

Leadership Strategies


It is important that every employee is held to the same work expectations...[yet] also consider individual needs and generational differences.

Halfer (2004) recommended that nurse leaders conduct a generational inventory of their work units that looks at the nursing team’s generational mix, age profile, and the generational issues on the team. It is important that every employee is held to the same work expectations, organizational policies, and procedures; yet nurse leaders should also consider individual employee needs and generational differences. Accommodating generational preferences in areas such as coaching and motivating, communicating, and resolving conflicts will help to promote an environment of retention (Hart, 2006).

Coaching and Motivating

Different generations have had different experiences in their family and educational settings. Although every member of a generational cohort is unique, these experiences in general create cohort preferences about how a generation wants to be coached and motivated by those who lead them (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Karp et al. 2002; Weston, 2001; Zemke et al., 2000). Veteran nurses are comfortable with a traditional, one-on-one coaching style and formal instructions on how to improve their performance. They value seniority and experience in coaching relationships. The personal touches, such as hand written notes, plaques, and pictures with the Chief Nursing Officer or Chief Executive Officer, are important in giving veteran nurses recognition (Duchscher & Cowin; Weston).


Baby Boomers desire to feel empowered in the work setting and to be asked for their feedback.

Baby Boomer nurses enjoy collegiality and participation and prefer being coached in peer-to-peer situations. They value lifelong learning as a way of improving their performance (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Halfer, 2004; Weston, 2001). Baby Boomers find public recognition for a job well done, along with perks, such as employee parking spaces, newsletter recognition, and professional award nominations to be motivating (Duchscher & Cowin; Greene, 2005; Halfer; Weston).

While Baby Boomers value learning in relationship-driven coaching situations, Generation X staff prefer a more equal coaching environment in which they have opportunities to demonstrate their own expertise in the learning environment and in which they do not feel micromanaged (Lahiri, 2001). Baby Boomers desire to feel empowered in the work setting and to be asked for their feedback. Generation X nurses believe that recognition and career advancement should be based on merit; they like to see rapid progress toward the goals they set for themselves. Traditional organizational rewards may not have as much value as paid time off, cash awards, or participation in cutting edge projects (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Greene, 2005; Halfer, 2004; Raines, 2002).


Millennial nurses expect more coaching and mentoring than any other generation in the workforce.

Millennial nurses expect more coaching and mentoring than any other generation in the workforce. They are optimistic and goal-oriented but also want structure, guidance, and extensive orientation. Internships and formalized clinical coaching and mentoring programs are highly valued by this generation (Halfer, 2004). Personal feedback is important to Millennials along with opportunities for self-development. Flexible scheduling is also valued by Millennial Nurses. Organizations can expect a high turnover of staff in this generation if their expectations and needs are not met (Clausing, Kurtz, Prendeville, & Walt, 2003; Howe & Strauss, 2000).

Communication

Utilizing communication strategies that will work effectively with different generations is a challenge for many nursing leaders (Greene, 2005). Sensitivity to communication differences and preferences across generations can help bridge gaps and create unique solutions that appeal to each generational belief system (Cran, 2005). It is also important to assure that communication is understood, so as to reduce the risk of errors that come with communication failures.

Veteran nurses are comfortable with communication systems that are inclusive and build trust. Face-to-face or written communication will be more effective than communication that involves the use of technology (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Weston, 2001; Zemke et al., 2000; Zust, 2001).

Baby Boomers prefer communication that is open, direct, and less formal. As a generation, they enjoy the group processing of information and value staff meetings that provide opportunity for discussion (Zemke et al, 2000). They prefer face-to-face or telephone communication but will use e-mail if they are comfortable with the technology (Duchscher et al, 2004; Weston, 2001; Zust, 2001).

Generation X is the first generation to have television as part of their daily lives; communication that involves technology appeals to them. Their communication approach is bottom line, and they may become bored at meetings that include considerable discussion before decisions are made (Karp et at., 2002).

Millennials have grown up with instant messaging and cellular phones. They like immediate feedback and may become frustrated if their e-mails or telephone messages are not answered quickly (Sacks, 2006). They also enjoy teamwork and appreciate team meetings as a forum for communication. As a group, they read less. Hence distributing lengthy policies and procedures to read may not be effective (Carlson, 2005). E-mails and chat rooms are good mechanisms for providing communication updates for this generation.

Conflict Resolution


Ground rules that reinforce the importance of respect and tolerance for all generations are key to promoting an atmosphere in which all viewpoints are considered legitimate.

Differences in generational values, behaviors, and attitudes have the potential to create significant conflict in the workplace (Greene, 2005). Two major sources of conflict in today’s nursing environment are the perceived differences in work ethics among generations and the use of technology. Both Generation X and Millennial nurses respect the achievements of their Baby Boomer leaders but seek work-life balance and are less likely to accept overtime or schedule changes to accommodate the needs of their work units (Greene, 2005). Veteran and Baby Boomer nursing leaders frustrate Generation X and Millennial staff if they resist technology advancements or if they don’t become competent with the technology available in the work setting ( Weston, 2001).

Unresolved conflict on the nursing team can lead to a loss of productive time, errors, staff turnover, and decreased patient satisfaction (Manion, 2005). Staff education about differences in generational attitudes and values is an important initial step. Ground rules that reinforce the importance of respect and tolerance for all generations are key to promoting an atmosphere in which all viewpoints are considered legitimate. Highlighting mutual team goals and keeping patient care as the focal point will promote effective conflict resolution (Greene, 2005).


Veteran nurses should be valued for the wisdom and organizational history that they bring to nursing teams...Baby Boomer nurses...for their clinical and organizational experience.

Hobbs et al. (2005) have proposed a generational synergy model that involves reframing the traditional look at generational differences in a way which focuses on contributions of each cohort, thereby reducing conflict in the workplace. Veteran nurses should be valued for the wisdom and organizational history that they bring to nursing teams. When technology fails, as it has during several of our recent natural disasters, Veteran Nurses can assist a unit to quickly shift to back to the traditional ways of assessing and caring for patients.

Baby Boomer nurses should be valued for their clinical and organizational experience. Utilizing them to coach and mentor younger nurses will be important to insure that the intellectual capital or knowledge of organizations will not be lost when large numbers of this generational cohort begin to retire (Halfer, 2004; Ulrich, 2001; Weston, 2001).

Generation X nurses should be valued for their innovative ideas and creative approaches to unit issues and problems. They can be instrumental in helping organizations design new approaches to nursing care delivery.


Millennial nurses should be valued for their understanding of technology and insights as to how it can be used in practice.

Millennial nurses should be valued for their understanding of technology and insights as to how it can be used in practice. Although novices to nursing, they can be instrumental in helping organizations implement computerized systems and other forms of technology. They can also serve as technology coaches to older generational cohorts (Carlson, 2005).

Understanding how to maximize the talents of each individual nursing staff member by addressing both their individual and generational needs is critical to good leadership. When each generation is appreciated for the strengths they bring to the team, generational diversity will lead to a synergy that brings the team to a much higher level of performance (Hobbs et al., 2005).

Conclusion

Facilitating the growth and development of staff is an important nursing leadership function. Yet in the presence of a generationally diverse workforce, this is not an easy task. Following are summary recommendations for nursing leaders who are leading a multigenerational workforce and enabling that workforce to thrive and to meet tomorrow’s health care challenges:

  • Seek to understand each generational cohort and accommodate generational differences in attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Develop generationally sensitive styles to effectively coach and motivate all members of the health care team.
  • Develop the ability to flex a communication style to accommodate generational differences.
  • Promote the resolution of generational conflict so as to build effective work teams.
  • Capitalize on generational differences, using these differences to enhance the work of the entire team.

Greene (2005) has noted that the dismay many nurse leaders express in terms of the changes they see in the workforce today is beside the point in today’s competitive recruitment market. Leadership strategies that have worked well for a less age-diverse nursing workforce may not be as effective in today’s environment. Rather learning to flex one’s style will be critical for both leadership and organizational success.

Author

Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, CNAA
E-mail: rsherman@fau.edu

Dr. Rose Sherman is the Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). She is also the director of the Nursing Administration track and the new Clinical Nurse Leader track in the graduate nursing program at FAU. She speaks, writes, and has conducted funded research on nursing leadership issues with a special focus on leadership development. In 2005, she was named the Nurse Leader of the Year by the Florida Organization of Nurse Executives for the work she had done with nursing leaders throughout the state.

Prior to joining the faculty at FAU, Dr. Sherman had a 25 year nursing leadership career with the Department of Veterans Affairs. She received her BSN in Nursing and BA in Political Science from the University of Florida, her MSN from Catholic University, and her EdD in Nursing Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is certified in Advanced Nursing Administration.

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© 2006 OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing
Article published May 31, 2006


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