Millennial doctors push back against ‘boomer’ claims they are unsuited to medical leadership

Medical politics

By Michael Woodhead

18 May 2020

A senior surgeon’s claim that younger ‘millennial’ doctors lack many of the traits necessary to make good medical leaders has been described as inaccurate, cliched and insulting by the target of his criticism.

Dr Rod Rohrich of the Dallas Plastic Surgery Institute penned a commentary in his speciality’s journal stating that doctors born between the years of 1981-1996 will need mentoring and training by the older ‘boomer’ doctors to overcome on their generational weaknesses so as to prepare them for leadership positions in medicine.

In his article entitled “Millennial Leaders: Ready or Not, Here They Come” Dr Rohrich says that millennial doctors are hampered by unfavourable traits such as short attention spans, lack of professional etiquette and inability to accept criticism.

While also praising millennials for having desirable traits such as being collaborative-minded digital natives who are good at multitasking, Dr Rohrich’s list of generational disadvantages has been widely panned  by other doctors on social media as consisting of sweeping generalisations and anecdotal impressions that actually reflect many of the problematic attitudes inherent in current medical leadership, especially within the more conservative specialties.

The so-called millennial traits include

  • Valuing ideas over experience: “Millennials expect praise, promotions, and even early advancement in their careers based on merit and achievement rather than age and position.”
  • Short term focus, lack of commitment: “Millennials are more likely to abandon their current job and look for a better one if they do not feel fulfilled.”
  • Unprofessional workplace etiquette: “Millennials lack deference to the standard vertical hierarchy. They expect to be partners with their leaders, viewing them as coaches or mentors with whom they prefer to collaborate in a casual setting.”
  • Lack of adaptability: “Millennials need to develop “learning agility” to survive in the increasingly complex environment of health care administration and plastic surgery.”
  • Lacking initiative due to fear of failure: “This fear may derive from the “equitable reward system” that millennials experienced during their upbringing, where everyone was given a trophy for simply participating in a sport or event.”
  • Lack of interest in member-based organisations: “The quality of information and mentorship available through member-based organisations may be unjustifiably eclipsed by the quantity of networking contacts available through [social media] means preferred by millennials.”
  • Poor communication skills due to  over-reliance on technology: “Both verbal and nonverbal communication need to improve among millennials for them to achieve success as leaders.”
  • Discomfort with criticism: “Effective leaders need to welcome complaints, recommendations, and feedback from followers.”

Dr Rohrich’s solution to the perceived disadvantages of millennials is to have a mix of formal leadership training and informal mentorship for of younger doctors.

“Ideally, leadership training programs should teach basic leadership principles, reinforce good leadership behaviours, and correct bad leadership behaviors. Given time constraints in residency, gradual leadership training through goal-setting and modelling would be a realistic approach,” he suggests.

But his article elicited widespread scorn and criticism from other doctors on social media, some of whom went as far as saying it should be formally retracted.

Many said that the traits highlighted as negative were often positives, and that others such as poor listening skills were simply understandable reactions to failures of current medical institutions and policies.

“What is more problematic? Standard vertical hierarchies with policies and rules that have unclear benefit… or partnership with leaders, collaboration, inquisitiveness? Is it millennials fault that the latter is seen as disrespectful, or the fault of out of touch leadership?” asked Dr Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian plastic surgeon.

Others asserted that the traits highlighted in the article such as lack of adaptability were either incorrect or not ascribable to a specific birth cohort.

“Didn’t realise I was classified as a millennial, but judging the work ethic of the dozen surgical registrars who I’m supervising on building a new virtual platform I don’t see any negatives,” said orthopaedic registrar  Dr Usman Ahmed.

And as one junior doctor pointed out, any attempt by millenial doctors to point out the flaws in the article would invariably lead to claims that this confirms they are unable to take criticism.

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