Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Many Pizzas Does It Take to Tango?

One of these Tuesdays, I'll report back on the responses to my question about what hospital leaders can do to overcome friction between staff members of different generations. First up, I wanted to share this example from a senior executive at a small hospital in the South.

"I was made aware of hard feelings between two baby boomer staff nurses and two recent hires just out of nursing school," she told me. "I decided to meet them in a neutral location so we could clear the air."

She chose the pizza place across the highway from the hospital. The nurses arrived separately in pairs according to age, and the two pairs slipped into opposite sides of the booth. The executive pulled a chair up to the end of the table.

She asked what they wanted on the pizza. One of the boomer nurses said she liked pepperoni. One of the Generation Y nurses said she was a vegetarian and asked for mushrooms. The other older nurse said mushrooms upset her stomach and if pepperoni was out, they should just get a plain cheese pizza. The other younger nurse said she was on a diet anyway and would just have the house salad.

Listening to the back-and-forth and trying her darnedest to hold it in, the executive finally burst out laughing. Nonplussed, the four nurses drew back in their seats and exchanged wary glances. Then, one by one, they joined in.

"We sat there like lunatics laughing helplessly for five minutes," the executive recalled. "The poor waiter was afraid to come over to take our order. When he did get up the nerve, I asked for two medium pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with mushrooms—and house salads all around." As soon as everyone had regained her composure, the executive leaned forward and said, "OK, now that we've settled the Pizza War, what can we do about work?"

And so began a 45-minute discussion, sometimes heated, but mostly not, about everything from scheduling of shifts to job assignments to office etiquette and behavior toward colleagues. "When we got to the topic of actually dealing with the patients, I was a little nervous," the executive admitted. "I thought it would be between ‘this is the new way we were taught in school' and ‘we've always done it this way here and it works just fine.' "

Instead, a younger nurse confessed that she sometimes felt overwhelmed by the workload and didn't know if she'd ever be able to juggle so many different tasks. An older nurse sheepishly acknowledged that she'd felt the same way her first year or so on a patient floor.

"That was the turning point," the executive said. "The ice was broken." Soon enough, the younger nurses were asking the baby boomers if they had any tips for sorting out the work a little more efficiently, and the boomers were asking if their co-workers could help make sense of some of the new technology.

"Let's face it, these nurses will never be the closest of colleagues," the executive said. "But the defensiveness and anger are pretty much gone."

What do you think? Can the generational conflicts at your hospital be tempered with a little pizza diplomacy? Tell me at bsantamour@healthforum.com.

By the way, I'll be in D.C. for the American Hospital Association Annual Membership Meeting starting this weekend. If you're around, look for my name tag and introduce yourself. I'd like to meet you and hear some of your real-life experiences working in a hospital—whether they relate to generational issues or not.


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H&HN Daily extends the conversations that readers began in other health care management publications and media. Each daily e-newsletter contains at least two topics with exclusive insights from high-visibility, recognized names in health care. All comments are welcome and may be posted to the blog. Comments may be edited for clarity or length.


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Bill Santamour
H&HN Managing Editor

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