In EMS, the generational gaps among employees are perhaps wider than most workforces, with EMT cadets as young as 14 training alongside medics with several decades of experience under their belt. These age gaps often come with misunderstandings and griping about differing values and opinions. But what if we’re more alike than we think? Better yet, what if our differences could actually complement each other? Moderated by Thomas Moore of Fitch & Associates, Maria Beerman-Foat, PhD and Jon Swanson discuss EMS leaders’ role in bridging these gaps in their Pinnacle EMS session “Leadership Perspectives from Baby Boomers to Generation Z” in Orlando, Fla. on July 24.
No organization benefits from having discord between employees of different ages, commonly caused by an “I know better than you do” attitude. Generational differences can be categorized in five buckets: 1) Mindsets and motivations, 2) communication, 3) technology, 4) work patterns, and 5) life-career path. To better understand each other, it’s important that we understand how we operate in these buckets and why. This requires two core values: trust and respect, says Swanson, executive director of Metropolitan EMS in Little Rock, Arkansas. These comprise the foundation of all positive relationships, but they don’t always come naturally. Leaders must actively think about how they can earn and maintain them from their employees. Respect can be earned by making employees feel valued and welcomed as respected members of the family, said Swanson.
On an internal level, allowing cliques to form can breed judgment and disrespect between crew members, especially with social media serving as a potential platform for creating division, where people can hurl disrespectful comments at others while hiding behind a computer screen. Leaders have a responsibility to hold their crews accountable for their behavior. The way you judge their behavior reflects what you value and what you reward, and they'll quickly catch onto this. This applies to behavior outside the station, too—respect everyone you encounter as you would each other, regardless of their background or why they’re calling 9-1-1. Providing comfort, reassurance, compassion, a safe space, and protecting their information and modesty are all key components to maintaining a respectable image, Swanson said.
It’s also important to create an environment in which your medics feel that they can make honest mistakes without severe punishment. Judgment calls medics make in the field are seldom wrong, but not always perfect, Swanson said. Let them know they’re operating in a space of constant improvement where they're learning every day, both as an organization and as individuals. This will only work if medics trust their leadership. Reassure them that if they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got, you have their backs.
Swanson approaches his leadership style with a mindset of “I work for them; they don’t work for me.” He said being in charge is not a privilege, but a responsibility. You have to be ready to accept responsibility for what happens externally and hold your people accountable internally. And lastly, he reminds the audience that good leaders eat last.
“Take care of your people before you take care of yourself and be visible about it,” he said. “I work every holiday because they work every holiday. Be available for them.”
Mindsets and Motivations
Leaders face the challenge of motivating their employees, said Beermann-Foat, so find out what makes them want to do what they want to do and capitalize on it, she said. You’re going to find different answers based on their time in the field. New medics are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to demonstrate their passion. Veteran medics are still in EMS because they either love the job, or they have “the golden handcuffs"—they’re getting paid just enough to make leaving this career for another not quite worthwhile.
When your employees walk through the door, they already have their minds made up about their level of engagement—it’s up to you as a leader to determine how to enhance it. Everyone has their own internal drives and motivations and they sometimes get in the way, including yours, so you have to walk through that door with a blank slate. Know your opinions and implicit biases but learn to keep them in check. We often operate based on those biases without being aware of them, but this can interfere with decision-making. If a leader can’t control their own mindset, they can’t control someone else’s. You have to be able to communicate your goals and understand theirs to reach a mutual understanding.
Beermann-Foat believes despite age differences between generations, we have a lot of commonalities. To learn how to tie those together, we have to be willing to have openminded conversations. When it comes to technology, everyone has their preferred avenue of communicating. Learn what everyone likes—don’t make assumptions based on stereotypes assigned to each generation. You might find a baby boomer prefers texting and a millennial prefers emailing or face-to-face. We have to stop generalizing groups.
“Every generation has people who don’t fit the mold,” she said. When most of us speak with someone who is younger, we assume we know more than they do. But everyone has different life experiences. The 20-year-old EMT might know more than the 40-year-old paramedic about a certain topic based on their experiences. People from different generations can offer valuable insight if they’re willing to listen to one another.
“Address people as individuals, not as groups,” she said. “You’ll get much farther with them because you’ll get to know them on a totally different level. You’ll know how to get them motivated and change their mindset because you really know them.”
Beermann-Foat also emphasized that getting to know your employees on an individual level helps them know they are valued and appreciated. “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known,” said Beermann-Foat. “There has to be a connection between the work performed and the satisfaction of a person or group.”