A Compassionate Intervention

When Bonnie first started working with me 10 years ago, she had just accepted a new nursing leadership role. She was young and excited about the opportunity, but she was also apprehensive about personal habits that could prevent her from being effective. After a few sessions, Bonnie identified the pattern that concerned her the most: She had a life-long “need” to orchestrate and control the actions of the others.

In Bonnie’s new job, this tendency was showing up in the ways she treated her direct
reports. She was hypercritical when they made mistakes, and despite her efforts to conceal her feelings, Bonnie showed her displeasure. She found herself jumping in and doing others’ jobs when the better choice was to coach and guide. She was also having trouble articulating clear expectations without adding emotion—which usually came out as frustration and anger. For a number of months, Bonnie worked hard to understand the pattern and manage her feelings. Eventually, she let go of her urge to control and started to trust what her direct reports did. She also learned to enjoy her opportunities to mentor and inspire.

Bonnie evolved in these ways because she practiced and gave herself space to grow as a leader and as a person. For the next several years, she cultivated self-awareness and understanding, compassion for herself and others, and the capacity to notice, but not be overcome by, her initial reactions to challenging events. She repeatedly practiced new behaviors such as asking how she could help instead of simply taking over. Did Bonnie’s dedication yield results? She would say “definitely, yes,” and she can claim many examples of leadership success. She is especially happy about her recent promotion to a significant system-wide leadership role.

Still, Bonnie knows that her hard work is not over, and a recent experience drove the
point home for her. When I saw her a few weeks ago, she was visibly distraught as she
shared an incident that hijacked her new-found skills and thrust her into taking over someone else’s job.

As she told her story, she realized that although quite taxing, the circumstances did not constitute an emergency, and her direct report could have managed the situation perfectly well. Yet, Bonnie interfered and behaved just as she would have many years earlier. What was the issue? Had Bonnie’s considerable investment in her own growth not taken hold? Did she have a relapse from which she could not recover?

After sharing the details, Bonnie developed the beneficial perspective of hindsight. She saw that, in fact, perplexing conditions like these happen all the time in nursing leadership and that her ill-serving behavior was not spawned by the specific circumstances. The triggersins tead lay in Bonnie herself. When this event happened, she was overly tired and she had allowed herself to be spread far too thin. As a result, she was especially susceptible to feeling pressured, anxious, and frightened.

Today, Bonnie is the first to say that the happenings on that day did not have to hijack her feelings and dictate actions she would regret. She also accepts that no matter how much she has practiced, poor self-care can quickly return her—and any of us—to old habits.

Once she recognized this very human tendency, Bonnie decided to put an easy-to remember plan in place. She likes to think of it as a “compassionate intervention” with herself. Here is what Bonnie resolved to do if (and when) she is not at her best, and similar events happen again.

  1. She will stay alert and notice when she is focusing on others’ wrongdoings and/or
    fixing their problems. Instead of allowing that dynamic to continue, she will redirect
    her attention back to herself.
  2. She will stop the action and pause long enough to breathe. Then she will use a
    mindfulness technique: she will temporarily suspend whatever story she is telling
    herself about the situation and the people involved. She will simply let it go—she
    will not reprimand or try to talk herself out of her narrative. She will just set it
    aside for a moment.
  3. Then she will turn her attention to what she is feeling. She will be patient as she
    identifies the sentiments that have been triggered. For example, she could feel
    fearful, victimized, shamed, or worried about looking bad or incompetent. Or, she may feel unappreciated and unheard, especially if she has spent time mentoring those
    around her.
  4. Once she has identified the feelings, she will be in a better position
    to move forward in a less reactive way.

Taking these steps requires only one thing of Bonnie: that she remember to
pause before acting on her feelings when she is particularly vulnerable to
pressure and stress. Initiating her simple plan will give her room to breathe and
remember who she is now as a leader. She will once again have access to the
new behaviors she has practiced many times. Most important, she will be able
to return herself to a state of emotional balance and right action.

Whether we are new to leadership and management or have been in the role for many years, all of us can be emotionally hijacked. When we are tired and spread too thin, even the most experienced among us can be quickly transported to raw and immature responses.

Bonnie reminds us of our most potent tools in taxing times: to slow down and breathe, and turn our attention away from our story. Taking just these 2 steps allows us to return our focus to ourselves, and understand and redirect what is happening emotionally. No matter how long we have served as leaders, all of us can choose to interrupt our own reactions when we know they will do more harm than good.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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