Finding Commonalities, Bridging Differences
November 16, 2017 | by Gene Mitchell
Managing multiple generations of workers—such as boomers and millennials—can take some work to understanding their differing priorities and styles. The good news is that what the generations have in common is much greater than what separates them.
Many discussions of workforce issues highlight the contrasts between 2 giant generations of Americans: baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and millennials, born between 1980 and 1997. Though the boomers were the larger of the two generations by birth numbers (76 million vs. 66 million), there are more millennials alive today than boomers, and the former are coming into their own within the workforce.
For perspective on how generational differences play out in the aging services workforce, we spoke with 3 people who developed an education session for this year’s LeadingAge Annual Meeting in New Orleans: Kimberly Daly Nobbs (Generation X), principal of Prajna Partners, LLC, a leadership consultancy in Lancaster, PA; Dayna Dixon (millennial), professor of nursing at the Barbara H. Hagan School of Nursing at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, NY, and a nurse leader and educator at Montefiore Hospital, New Rochelle, NY; and Tama Carey (boomer), executive VP and COO for Presby’s Inspired Life, Lafayette Hill, PA. The session was presented by Nobbs and Dixon.
LeadingAge: Your work concerns boomers and millennials, but where does Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, fit in?
Kim Daly Nobbs: They definitely belong in the middle of those 2 generations. There’s starting to be an evolution, an awareness of the ability to ask for work-life balance. They’re big on training and education but not necessarily feeling indebted to the organization for helping them get there. They are putting their toes in the water in different ways in terms of seeing conflict as a more healthy aspect of organizational culture. [They are] sort of a bridge generation in a lot of ways.
LeadingAge: Let’s talk about comparative attitudes about work. What do different generations feel they owe their employers, and how can managers bridge the gap?
Kim Daly Nobbs: With the boomers, it’s “live to work.” They are family-focused but if there’s work that has to be done in order to move ahead, often you see people choosing work over family. One of the things you see in that generation is that you still have more one-income families than you do in later generations. When they try to apply a "pay your dues" philosophy to the younger people coming in, it's a major source of conflict.
We try to create harmony in the environment, but with boomers, who tend to be more conflict-avoidant, it's sometimes a superficial harmony. The concept of how to have healthy conflict wasn’t in vogue until later in [boomers’] careers.
Tama Carey: Because of that, this is a group that identifies much of their self-worth with what they do at their jobs. As a nurse, we’ve always been a group that says everyone has to pay their dues, but as a generation, the boomers have said that across the spectrum. These are people who have been willing to stay at a job they sometimes hated to be sure their families could be taken care of, and as they continue to move up the ladder, boomers may get stuck because they make better money and prestige is increasing.
Kim Daly Nobbs: That’s where you see attitudes about retirement; we see the younger end of the boomer generation just getting to that place, more typical of Gen X’ers and millennials, who are not wanting to retire and do nothing. That’s not what people want anymore; it’s not a vacation they want, they have passions and avocations.
Dayna Dixon: There’s a very common misconception out there, that there is this big difference [between the generations] in working attitude. Having worked with a broad span of people across generations, on the day-to-day basics of getting things done, I don’t really see that. If you put together a group for a creative brainstorming session you might see some differences, for instance, the millennials will gravitate toward technology and there’s an app for everything. But when it comes to the basic workday, just showing up on time and getting the work done, I think it’s the idea of what the organization presents in terms of shared values, vision and culture that speaks to all employees in terms of professionalism.
LeadingAge: Kim and Tama, both of you talked briefly about conflict, but let’s revisit it. If there are different attitudes about conflict, how can a manager help everyone become more comfortable with it?
Tama Carey: Kim mentioned that a lot of times boomers will have a false sense of things going well; they will not confront a lot of issues, and if they do, oftentimes it’s still a little of that command-and-control left over from the postwar period when that’s how supervisors got things done. When I experience millennials in my workplace, these are confident and bright young people who don’t seem to have problems speaking up at meetings. That can be mistaken for arrogance and pushback, which is a term I don’t use often, because when you have a healthy organizational culture you want people to say what’s on their minds while you’re together so it can be worked out, not have everyone smile and say things are OK, and then talk about it at the water cooler. It has been interesting to watch how some of these conversations take place in meetings where the same questions are being asked. Before, 12 people might nod their heads and say things are OK. Now you have these young people who are very confident saying … “Well, here’s something I think isn’t working that well.” They are a lot more comfortable saying those things and it rubs some people the wrong way.
Kim Daly Nobbs: Initiating and receiving direct communication is not a natural skill for everyone, depending on the family they grew up in, and on their generation. There is not an automatic respect of position [for millennials]; you might have to submit to a position, but you don’t automatically respect them. Managers have to first acknowledge that it’s a skill that needs to be built, and then work to build that skill. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised, and in the moment, you should try to reframe things and make sure people are speaking up, and confront it if you hear there are meetings after the meetings, not just let it go. If you let that go, that’s your culture.
A lot of organizations are using different programs, like Crucial Conversations; there are practices and trainings for how to have healthy communication where people can bring all their ideas that may disagree with each other in a way that’s healthy and respectful. If people hold it in, it can bubble out in a way that’s harsh or hurtful.
Tama Carey: LeadingAge did a whole workshop with Susan Scott of Fierce Conversations. We need to spend more time on helping people say what needs to be said and I need to learn how to receive what’s being said.
LeadingAge: They’re not trying to offend, just being direct.
Tama Carey: That’s right. They’re actually taking all the rest of us at our word when we say, “Tell us what you think.”
Kim Daly Nobbs: If you have someone who’s even asking “why,” it can be seen as an attack on your authority if that’s not your way of working. That’s something I see most often; the millennials want to know the why, and that’s a reasonable thing.
That’s the saddest thing about this kind of mismatch. When I talk to millennials who are having conflict with their older supervisors, they truly don’t understand; they really didn’t intend to offend, and they want it to be OK, but they don’t understand why someone would take offense.
Dayna Dixon: From my perspective as a millennial, the old-school way of access is that you would give your supervisor input and hope the supervisor passes that on to the boss. Now, there’s a lot of access; I can get my point across to the head of any organization I work for with a simple tweet. Millennials are probably less shy about doing their elevator pitch, and have a lot of confidence because they’re not afraid to speak to authority figures and certainly not afraid to challenge them. I know the way that challenge comes across is varied, but the research shows that it tends to be very direct and blunt, and that can be off-putting to the leadership. It can feel personal for the person hearing it, and for all the people who’ve been in the organization. You’re kind of picking their ideas apart, whether a marketing idea or an operations idea, and there are people who might have worked 5 years to get things to that place.
I don’t know that I have an answer, but I do think that’s the biggest area that needs to be smoothed over. Some of my coaching, when talking to millennials or X’ers even, is that even though you don’t want to leave everything status-quo, there is a way of coming in there with a certain mindfulness or gentleness and understanding, acknowledging the work that’s been done so far. It’s also important to recognize that some of your ideas might sound great but might not be feasible for the organization based on where it is operationally. That’s where the wisdom of the boomers comes in. There needs to be a healthy balance.
LeadingAge: As someone who supervises both boomers and millennials, have you gotten good at bridging that gap?
Dayna Dixon: I would like to think so, but there’s always work to be done. As a millennial leader, I’ve adopted an open door, and I want to lead by example. If I’m coaching a boomer to help them be open to feedback, it also means I need to be open, as a millennial, to their feedback, and criticism about my style. It was scary at first, but extremely helpful for my career. I found that boomers, especially those who had great leadership potential, but had no desire for a formal leadership role, were amazing resources for me. I could sit down and ask them, “How do you feel about this, or what do you think the best approach would be? When I get up and say something or bring a new policy to the table, what do you think is most off-putting about my style, or most engaging about my style?” It took a degree of vulnerability and ability to sit and listen to things that weren’t always fun, but it did help me get better, and they saw I was there for the team, and it changed their idea of what a boss was.
LeadingAge: “Value alignment” is often cited as a priority for millennials. Can you discuss that?
Kim Daly Nobbs: That’s a huge driver for younger folks, more than it was for boomers, who tended to be more status-driven, more money-driven, initially. There are a lot of boomers who tend to get disappointed over time in the way their organization lives its values—not necessarily the work that’s being done by its team members—but they don’t do anything about it. They become disengaged; they “quit and stay.” But millennials are different; if they get disillusioned, they get gone. They will find an organization that lives up to its espoused values.
Tama Carey: Where you look at some of the value words that drive boomers vs. the value words that drive millennials, they have a lot in harmony also. Possibility is something you’d see on many lists of boomers. Passion and curiosity are what millennials are looking for. They’re not necessarily different, though they might be expressed differently. When millennials find a culture has integrity and is living it out, they’ll have loyalty as well.
LeadingAge: For millennials interested in value alignment, is our nonprofit status an advantage for us in attracting them?
Kim Daly Nobbs: The nonprofit difference is not automatic. A lot of organizations sort of wrap themselves in the nonprofit blanket, but continued values alignment is something that takes intention and commitment. If we are being innovative and exploring new directions, we have to do that in the context of our organizational values. We need to be willing to wrestle with our values and to ensure that the decisions we make, the directions we take and our way of working is in alignment with them. These young people are not afraid to point out misalignment.
In fact, there is a growing number of for-profit organizations that work hard to espouse and live by their values. It’s not that nonprofits can’t have an advantage, but it’s something we have to be intentional and thoughtful about.
Tama Carey: Our missions as nonprofits could be attractive for recruiting, but unless we have the healthy cultures we say we have, we won’t be able to retain the millennials. We have some things that hinder us, like the regulatory environment, and we need to work harder on that, but I believe this is a group that is asking “Why can’t we say yes to things? How could we say yes?”
LeadingAge: Don’t we need to be sure to tease out the “generational” differences versus the “stage of life” differences? Attitudes about changing jobs are much different if your age is 58 vs. 28.
Dayna Dixon: Well, boomers at this time may be closer to retirement or looking toward keeping things the way they are. One boomer I talked to put it so beautifully: I told her how great she was, how she could work for any hospital, and she said, “I have about 5 years left, and I want to make a difference here from the inside.” She was a boomer who made a difference to me. Boomers also stayed with jobs earlier in their careers because the job market was very different. The research shows that compensation was designed so people could make a living.
For a millennial, when you talk about those motivational factors, there’s the intrinsic motivation that speaks to autonomy, purpose and mastery, and then there’s the extrinsic: If you’re basically struggling to pay rent in New York City, working at a job where you don’t feel value alignment with, you are not going to stay. If you can work the same hours for less money but have more psychological time to put toward something you’re passionate about, like volunteering, the millennials are heavily backed by their boomer parents, who kind of built them that way.
I’m from the older millennial batch, and I can see, among colleagues in the same age range, shifts in our behavior. We’re starting families and have a larger responsibility. Now it’s not just putting a roof over my head; now I need to keep health insurance, and make sure my income is structured in a certain way. We have to ask, what’s livable, what’s changeable, and what’s the line that shall not be crossed? We’ve moved that line back a little, and are getting better at solving, not just leaving.
My focus at this point, when coaching millennials, is to say, “Don’t let running be the only answer. You always have the option to leave, everyone does, but … how can you stay, how can deal with this conflict, even when it seems insurmountable? What have you not explored?”
LeadingAge: What does "strong leadership" look like to the 2 generations, and what responsibility does any leader have, regardless of the leader's age?
Dayna Dixon: Strong leaders in any generation or culture are highly engaged and very trustworthy. Show me what makes your day great and tell me what’s a barrier to going through your day successfully. Research shows that trust, high engagement, accountability, and leading by example [are important]. I think the strong leadership paradigm is all values-based and is not really a generational thing at the end of the day. It’s defined based on what the values of the organization are and what the employees are looking for—they’re looking for that mirror back. A great deal of optimism and positivity is helpful; nobody likes a negative, naysayer leader.
Tama Carey: The strong leader will be someone who can make decisions, and like all leadership, someone who has a vision and can clearly articulate that vision, so people know what they’re signing onto. It starts to differ a little where boomers would say, “The boss said it so we’re going to go do it,” while the millennials might ask, “Can we have a conversation about that,” and maybe the vision can be tweaked a little. Boomers sometimes see flexibility as being wishy-washy or as favoritism, because you’re not doing it exactly the same for every person. Millennials look for more flexibility and might say, “Why couldn’t we have 3 people come in later, as long as you’re still getting the work done?”
Kim Daly Nobbs: There’s a great Ghandi quote that says, “My commitment is not to consistency; my commitment is to truth.” Sometimes what you see in traditional leadership is people hanging onto something that’s not working because they believe if they shift direction it will make them look weak. But in our field things change all the time. We have to be agile and adaptive and know that what might have been a great direction 2 years ago is not the best direction now.
We want to understand that the broad range of gifts and attitudes and perspectives people bring into an environment make decisions better and outcomes stronger. We need to fight that tendency to want to surround ourselves with people who think exactly like we think. Millennials are so maligned in a kind of offhanded way; in some of the meetings we sit in, some people just bash them, and there’s so much we’re missing by doing that to each other. We need to look around and find commonality, but we also need to say, “What is beautiful about the things you bring that I don’t necessarily bring?” That requires self-confidence and that’s why these things require interpersonal skill. It’s like the Peter Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It doesn’t matter what you build on top of a foundation that’s not healthy, because it won’t work.
Ageism is at work whenever we pigeonhole people and assign limits to them, based on their age. It isn’t just about people over a certain age; it can be anyone under a certain age.
LeadingAge: Isn’t it too easy to get hung up on the differences between generations, and lose sight of all the commonalities between them?
Tama Carey: Those same principles that apply to healthy relationship-building apply no matter where you are, whether within the same generation or different ones.
I’m a later boomer and Kim is a Gen X and Dayna is a millennial, and we do have a lot in common. For boomers, the work ethic was all about doing your work, doing more than you were asked. You looked for promotions and you were looking for linear change. A lot of us worked in the same place for our entire careers, like our family members before us. But that is not even an option for younger people, even if they want to, because companies are changing. And … the other part is that they have so many more options than I think I did, anyway.
Dayna Dixon: It’s very funny to talk about differences between generations and a lot can be mined from it for comedy, or even conflict, but these generations, especially millennials and boomers, have so much in common because of their relationship to one another. If we look at the breakdown of characteristics [Editor’s note: refers to a slide from the LeadingAge meeting presentation], there are words on each column, but if you look on one side, combine a couple of words on the other side and you have the same [concept].
For example, on one side there’s integrity for millennials, and if you look on the other side for boomers there’s loyalty and justice. I think integrity combines both loyalty and justice, so both groups have a great deal of that and are largely inspired by one another. The boomers built the world for the millennials and the generations coming after them, and the millennials are very much inspired by the lives that were formed by boomers, who are their parents.
Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.