H&HN teamed up with the health care recruiters at B.E. Smith recently to ask a panel of hospital leaders what it’s like to manage a workforce made up of four different and very distinct generations of employees. While the panelists shared lots of insights and advice, one surprising theme emerged.

It seems that if there is any kind of generation gap among hospital staff today, it’s not between oldest and youngest. Panelists repeatedly mentioned a "special bond" that has developed between the baby boomers on staff and their colleagues from the millennial generation. The bond is sometimes so strong, in fact, it can leave the generation in between — the Gen Xers — feeling isolated.

Just so we’re on the same page, boomers today range in age from roughly 48 to 67; Gen Xers, from 37 to 47; and Milliennials, from 19 to 36.

Millennials "respect our knowledge," said boomer Carolyn Caldwell, president and CEO of Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif. "They are coachable and teachable. Those traits make you want to spend time coaching and working with them."

Although everybody at the roundtable cautioned against painting any group of people with too broad a brush, they agreed that Gen Xers tend to be less willing to listen to their older colleagues. "They already feel they know it all," said one panelist.

Gen Xers also have a different view of organizations and careers. Many of them "expect to move up quickly within the ranks without putting in the work," said Jim Sheets, CEO/administrator of Intermountain LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, himself a Gen Xer. "They are looking for a quick promotion and do not have a lot of organizational loyalty."

And whereas "millennials are the most flexible and will adapt readily to new environments," Sheets said, "Gen Xers, for whatever reason, are more stubborn and rooted in their ways."

Even at B.E. Smith, "we have a pretty aggressive mentoring program, with limited success among Generation X," said President and CEO Doug Smith. "We have outstanding success with the millennials, a very enjoyable relationship … the millennials love working with the baby boomers, and vice versa."

Some panelists speculated that the big age gap between boomers and milliennials may account for their bond. "The younger baby boomers and the older Gen Xers are close in age so there is some competitiveness between those groups," Caldwell said. "They view each other as competition, and that’s why some Gen Xers are stuck in middle management. There’s a significant gap between baby boomers and the millennials, and that’s one reason there is little friction between those groups."

None of which means hospital executives can simply write off Generation X. "As leaders, we must work with them and help them realize they need to put in the hard work and earn their stripes," Sheets said. "They need to invest themselves and be open to feedback, especially criticism, to become leaders themselves. That’s how they will become solid, empathetic leaders."

The bottom line: Hospitals must foster understanding and cooperation among all age groups.

"As leaders, we need to be careful not to unnecessarily segment the generations," said Larry Mullins of Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, Ore. "If the organization sets the expectations and values, we’ll draw the people to the organization from all generations that relate to those values and expectations."