Hospital Impact: Strategies for emotionally intelligent hospital leaders to engage millennials


The likelihood of losing experienced administrators, department heads and nurse managers this year is pretty high. With an estimated 4 million baby boomers retiring each year, and the generation following them (gen Xers) less than half their size in number, it's essential to engage the millennial generation (gen Y) from a new point of view. The demand for healthcare jobs is on the rise, and so too is the turnover rate of the millennial majority. 

What do we know about millennials? They are changing jobs on an average of every two years. In my work as a hospital leadership and team development program specialist and facilitator, boomer and gen X leaders have shared with me their three major millennial concerns:

  1. It is challenging to recruit candidates with relevant experience.
  2. They feel their approach to work is too informal.
  3. The turnover rate for positions they are filling is costly.

How do you engage those who are not ready to make a long-term commitment?

While they may not have the historical perspective of the organization or may lack on-the-job experience, millennials represent possibility, innovation and positive change for healthcare. Their ideas about leadership may look different than those of a manager with 20 or more years of service, but make no mistake, their insight, and the clarity they have about what they need from their leaders and peers, is as refreshing as it is honest.

Millennials are responsive to leaders with emotional intelligence, and when they come on board, they quickly study the culture. If there is even a hint of the “we eat our young” mentality, you can expect a millennial new hire to be looking for a different place to work soon after they start. 

Millennials develop respect for leaders who walk the talk. In generations past, respect was demanded by those in positions of authority and earned by subordinates after a period of proving themselves. Millennials do understand the need for a hierarchal system, but they have disdain for the command-and-control approach. When it comes to loyalty, a survey by Elance/oDesk suggests that 57% of millennials believe corporate loyalty is dead, making it all the more critical to cultivate the leadership skills in millennials, who are said to be 64% less likely to switch jobs if they feel engaged and respected.

Understanding and following these five emotionally intelligent approaches to engage millennials are vital to developing more trusting and authentic relationships with those you would like to lead down the road.

Engage in meaningful communication

Get to know what your younger supervisors and managers need and want. Casual talk before and after meetings helps to build rapport; however, these are not a substitute for meaningful conversations. Find common ground by asking for their thoughts about the culture and how they perceive the uncertainties in the industry, and seek their ideas about growth potential and where they see the hospital in the future. Solicit their feedback on matters that affect their team and department. Ensure they are kept in the loop on significant changes early and updated often. 

Mary Sheahen, R.N., a longtime healthcare executive, leadership coach, former hospital CEO and current board chair of Midwest Medical Center in Galena, Illinois, says: “Meaningful communication is fundamental to career and leadership development and retention. I encourage senior executives to seek reflective input from their younger employees actively. When they do, they’re gaining valuable insight from thought partners who have fresh and diverse insight.” Sheahen added that tapping into the millennial mindset is an important strategic move as they are the demographic that healthcare organizations are vying to engage with as consumers. 

Support development

Collaborate closely with millennials who have expressed interest in advancement. Help them to create a career and professional development plan that works for their individual needs. In smaller organizations, where there are fewer opportunities for career advancement, young employees value professional skill development that goes beyond what’s required to perform the job. A 2017 Deloitte study on millennials in the workplace found that 63% felt their leadership skills were not being developed. And in a 2015 “Millennial Mindset Study” of employed millennials conducted by online training platform Mindflash, respondents said the “lack of company support for training and development” was the No. 1 most surprising aspect of work in the “real world.”

Investing in professional development pays off in many ways. When offering a promotion, pair it with an opportunity to complete an emotional intelligence assessment. Doing so provides newly appointed managers with valuable insight into their problem-solving, decision-making and stress tolerance abilities, which ultimately helps them to be more responsive, engaged and effective with the team they’ll lead. If the HR department isn’t equipped to offer this type of development, seek content area experts who can. Taking an interest in millennial career ambitions and the areas of their leadership skills they desire to explore promotes and rewards positive, proactive behavior. 

Empower honorably 

The empowerment myth drives millennials to leave a department or the organization altogether. Millennials want to work for those who demonstrate a genuine interest in their ideas, contributions and the trust placed in their independence. Leadership by empowerment myth asks individuals to fix problems or develop strategies to improve processes without providing clear direction or setting parameters only to dismiss or shoot down the ideas presented. “When an emerging leader is falsely empowered, they will eventually pull back on making decisions and setting goals. They’ll become discouraged and disengaged,” Sheahen says.  

Uphold the culture’s promise

Compensation ranks high in career satisfaction, and millennials do expect to be paid well and promoted often, but money isn’t necessarily the top driver for retaining them. What is the organization’s stated value? In other words, what is the culture? Sheahen says, “Culture is the shared observation of the leadership team.” Millennials who don’t feel aligned with the values of the organization will check out. Even if they stay on for a period for personal reasons, culture clashes will have a negative impact sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, leaders who model excellence in the boardroom see this culture reflected in their patient and employee satisfaction scores.  Those who live up to the organization’s promised values don’t allow others on the team to use negative labels when speaking about millennials (and all others) on the team, and they certainly don’t make rules of conduct only to break them.

Here’s an example: I recently worked with an early gen X director who could no longer overlook a valued and promising millennial manager’s incessant texting habits. We talked through approaches to address the issue, she went on to explain that the behavior was hindering productivity and modeling poor conduct, and they quickly worked through the problem to a mutually satisfactory resolution. A few days after their coaching conversation, the gen X director invited her boss (a boomer member of the administration team) to attend a department meeting with the reformed “textaholic” and others. Her boss then spent the entire time tapping away on his phone. His actions were not only a slap in the face of the no-cellphone rule during meetings policy; the incident perfectly demonstrated the inequity that millennial members of the team know exists in the culture. 

Say “yes” more

In a 2016 study commissioned by Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, nearly 70% of millennials said they would prefer to “explore, experiment and travel” before retirement, as well as follow a different path in how they learn, work, partner and raise families. The results show a departure from the way things have worked for decades. Gone are the days when employees feel the pressure of having to work a 60-plus-hour week or put their vacations on the back burner. In contrast, hospitals continue to grapple with innovation around scheduling and coverage, programs such as job sharing, and those who support working from home or flexible hours. Yes, the hospital business is a 24/7/365, meeting-laden one, but this doesn’t mean saying no to exploring alternative work models for some areas of the operation. 

Millennials entered the workforce with an expectation of more immediate gratification, so it stands to reason that they would be dissatisfied with a protracted policy debate about time off or being able to video conference in for a meeting versus clock in and sit at the table. Get to a “yes” by convening a multigenerational, hospital-wide task force aimed at developing ideas on how to create more job flexibility and work/life balance. Stipulate that the only ideas considered for adoption will be ones that ensure patient quality, safety and satisfaction will continue to be the top priority.

The “purpose generation”

Having two emotionally intelligent millennials of my own, and after teaching and coaching hundreds of millennials every year, I reject all of the negative labels assigned to them. Millennials are the “purpose generation.” While “traditionalists” (those older than 70), boomers and gen Xers continue to do battle over healthcare reform, and pretty much everything else, I believe that the millennials will heal this very fractured and fragile industry. We need them to. No matter what their predecessors hand down, it will be their responsibility to make it better for the generations that will depend on them.

An emotionally intelligent approach to engaging millennials is both smart and strategic. Meet them where they are now, because frankly, this is where we all need to be in this moment. 

Michelle Rathman is president and CEO of Impact! Communications Inc., a healthcare strategy company specializing in rural healthcare organizational culture transformation, communications, leadership development and community engagement. She is also a frequent keynote speaker at national and regional healthcare forums. Follow Michelle @MRBimpact.