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February 15, 2023

Becoming a Resilient Leader During Trying Times


Resilience is the ability to confidently face challenges, embrace change, recover from setbacks, and bounce back from adversities. This can be extremely difficult for leaders in today’s health care environment.  Increasing your resilience is easier said than done, especially post COVID.  This paper hopefully provides some insight to new managers on how to succeed in a competitive, challenging industry.

Are you leader, manager or both?

Leadership, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, states leadership is the action of leading a group of people or an organization.

The terms leadership and management tend to be used interchangeably, but they are not the same, although health care leaders must have strong management skills. Both leaders and managers have to seek accomplishment with resources at their disposal, but true leadership requires more. Leadership requires traits that extend beyond management duties, such as creative problem solving and thinking outside the box, which is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. The phrase also often refers to novel or creative thinking.

Becoming a resilient leader is about taking risks and challenging the status quo.  It means you can motivate others to achieve something new and better and reinvent pathways for those you are leading to succeed, even during these challenging times.  This can lead to increased trust and respect hopefully in the top-down approach (filtering down from the top of the organizational structure).

It is necessary to address near-misses, incidents, audit failures and other reportable situations.  But sometimes focusing only on the negative only attracts more negative.

The human brain has a natural tendency to give weight and to remember negative experiences or interactions more than positive ones. Why? They stand out more. Psychologists refer to this as negativity bias. “Our brains are wired to scout for the bad stuff” and fixate on the threat, says psychologist and author Rick Hanson.  As a leader, we need to find a way to break the negative bias “cycle” and maintain a more positive attitude, especially during trying times.

From my personal experience, keeping a positive attitude (although extremely difficult at times) is best achieved by leading with strength, wisdom and kindness.  These are traits we want to see in our health care providers, nursing staff and other direct care workforce members.  But how can we expect these traits if the work environment lacks encouragement and doesn’t reward behavior required to provide compassionate care and support a culture of compliance?

Begin by acknowledging success at all levels.  Each success builds better relationships and promotes a culture of compliance in the organization.  Give the management of a small project by delegating and using it as teaching or mentoring moment to encourage that person to be more, do more and contribute more.

Resilient Leaders Builds Workforce Resilience

Traits demonstrating resilience will be recognized by your workforce, and by C-Suite executives.  People believe what they see, and a true leader is seen as an optimist even during the most stressful of times. Winston Churchill said it best, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

If your tendency is to be a perfectionist and likely a pessimist, the first step is to recognize this trait and work to see the good that can come out of a difficult situation. You first need to transform yourself before transforming your workforce. 

If you are uncomfortable in leading people, try the mentoring approach first.

When I first transitioned from nursing to coding and reimbursement, I had to develop a different skillset when working with our clinic’s providers.  I started night classes at a local college, taking business communication and leadership courses, which helped.  But excelling is credited to my mentors.  The most influential mentor was a Vice President of the health care organization where I worked for 10 years.  He took me under his wing as he coached and encouraged me after a promotion into management. I learned so much just by watching how he was never late for a meeting out of respect for another’s time (which gained respect back); and how he listened carefully to what others had to say.  He taught me how not to jump to conclusions, to be more observant during high-power meetings and to believe in myself. Another mentor, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) took the time to teach me how to navigate the Medicare & Medicaid rules and regulations which I, in turn, used to win huge appeals for my organization.  He was my tactical mentor and also guided me through the politics of a large health care organization.

Staying competent was only part of what is needed to be resilient in any profession.   I needed confidence, which is HUGE when working with physicians.  How can providers have confidence in you if you don’t have confidence in yourself? Without confidence, competence and strength, the providers would resist change and my workforce would fail.  I asked for direction and guidance from my primary mentor and learned about strengthening my leadership skills so I could become more effective with my interactions with the physicians. I must have achieved this because it was noticed and additional advancement came. 

When you are mentored, it makes it easier to realize what it takes to mentor others. Mentoring others helped increase my resilience, even during a major take-over of our clinic by a large hospital system. 

An important aspect of mentoring others is to foster psychological safety, which is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It leads to authentic conversations which promotes problem solving, innovation, connection, and growth. This practice is built into the culture over time and requires leaders to respond to staff challenges by modeling authenticity, accountability, and compassion, and by creating space for sharing and listening. 

If you can’t change the organizational culture, at least improve the culture within your own department.  Other leaders in your organization will notice and you might become a trend-setter! 

The Challenge in Leading Remote Workers

Build meaningful connections with your remote workforce.  A study conducted by the O.C. Tanner Institute in the 2022 Global Culture Report, states 5% of employees say the number of individuals they regularly interact with at work has decreased significantly over the past year, and one in three employees feel disconnected from their supervisor. They also report an organization is 12 times more likely to thrive when employees feel connected.  Find creative ways to connect, perhaps through more frequent information sharing or education sessions, etc.  Encourage your staff to share their thoughts.  Consider creating a policy that if someone brings a problem to the table (or virtual table), only bring it if they can suggest at least one solution.  This type of policy stops complaining and creates a more constructive conversation, whether it is in a virtual group session or one-on-one.

Another policy - don’t have meaningless, time-consuming remote meetings.  Be prepared, expect everyone to be on time and have an agenda published in advance.  It is easy to check off topics and create worklists, but first, have discussion and listen to ideas to gain insight on perhaps doing things not only different, but better than before. 

Apply the Pareto Principle correctly; avoid 80% of the time in a meeting used to cover 20% of the “meat” in your remote or in-person meetings!

Practices, such as frequent check-ins, supporting peer mentorship, normalizing discussions around change and finding shared purpose all build meaningful connections, even in our virtual and hybrid settings.

In Conclusion

Join other organizational leaders, managers, and human services experts to explore concepts and strategies that are foundational to building a workforce that can stay well and healthy, even amid constantly changing environments. 

As a leader, encourage a positive organizational culture which is critical for supporting staff as they partner authentically with patients, families and the community who often experience complex challenges, systemic inequities, and personal trauma. 

This means avoiding toxic stress and mitigating its impact, build healthy and realistic expectations.  It is tempting to hire a consultant to “reinvent” the organizational structure.  From my experience, it typically ends by solving some problems, but creating more in another area resulting in a negative gain overall. So resist trends which cost a bundle, up-ends the organization and can result in distrust with your workforce.  Be transparent, be a compassionate and good listener and display traits that you want to see in your own workforce.

Investing in your workforce can improve productivity, encourage confidence and maintain a high-development culture which is more likely to engage employees.  In health care, the return on this investment can be measured in reduced turnover, ability to deliver improved quality care and will attract higher-quality people to apply for open positions because your organization has become THE place to work.

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