Changing the Locus of Power

Nurse leaders never fail to inspire me. In this column, I want to honor Allison, a young leader who is new to her role as Chief Nursing Officer. Allison describes herself as fully committed to patient care and leadership excellence. This column is about her decision to understand and learn from her mistakes and to express her power differently. Her story offers all of us lessons in being flexible so we can lead with the best of our skills and intentions.

When she began in her new chief nurse role a year ago, Allison knew she could do a great job, and she was determined to show that from the start. She was committed to letting her new colleagues know that she is a strong, decisive, and capable leader. She fulfilled this intention by leading from “in front” in nearly every encounter. Instead of showing interest in her coworkers by asking for their thoughts when the situation called for it, she shared her own opinions first. Then she took action, frequently without the benefit of anyone else’s input.

As her first year anniversary approached, Allison elected to work with a coach because she sensed that her choice to lead with forceful conviction was not well received. As it turned out, her first year review and a subsequent 360 process confirmed that her peers, her boss, and her subordinates had serious concerns about Allison’s fit with the organization.

The good news for Allison was that all of her coworkers acknowledged her competence, and they welcomed and appreciated her values and her command of nursing and patient-safety matters.

However, they had other serious worries. Their negative feedback centered on Allison’s approach to relationships and the way she treated those around her. They felt that she did not show respect for others’ longevity. She also did not exhibit interest in their opinions—even when they were the experts and more familiar with the context than Allison. In addition, several of her colleagues said she was arrogant, excessively pushy, and overly focused on herself. They also stated that she was easily rattled when challenged; they described her as lacking the ability to converse and reflect. They believed she was “shooting from the hip” on many occasions.

Allison saw it differently. When a subordinate or a peer asked a question or wanted more information about her direction, Allison believed these were efforts to undermine her leadership. She felt that her peers or direct reports were being insubordinate and disrespectful when they didn’t simply go along with her decisions.

Allison’s reaction to her experience of insubordination was to double down—she became even more forceful. By her own account, she struck back “reflexively,” sometimes blurting out that a decision had been made or that a questioning colleague was simply wrong. She explained to me that her motivation was to display more power and more knowledge than her “opponent.”

For her colleagues, the consequences of Allison’s reactions were troublesome at best and gravely concerning at worst. Her boss and her peers knew that Allison was intent on staying in her job, but they were not so sure. One reason was that they were committed to multidisciplinary collaboration, and they felt Allison’s behavior was egotistical and her viewpoint was too “nursing-centric.” Further, their experience of Allison’s “decisive” leadership was that it created resistance and even animosity among her equally talented peers and direct reports.

So, how did Allison turn this around?

  1. She reflected on what was causing her to communicate that she was better and smarter than those around her. She understood that expressing her power by dominating was bound to be a turn off to the very people upon whom her success depended.
  2. She got clear on her long-term vision of success, and she identified the intersections between her vision with that of the organization and the rest of the leadership team. Based on their common goals, she articulated what she wanted to achieve and how she wanted to relate to her colleagues.
  3. She saw the limits of leading with solely her own knowledge. She realized that intelligence, experience, and decisiveness were not enough to nurture strong relationships with her teammates.
  4. She recognized the corrosive power of her bad habits. She saw that being forthright in nearly every situation was back-firing. If she couldn’t temper ill-serving behaviors such as speaking first and lacking curiosity about other people and their perspectives, she could wind up losing her job.
  5. She considered how she sounded when disagreeing with a colleague or direct report. She thought about how often she was communicating—essentially— that she was right and the other person was wrong.
  6. She reminded herself that her direct reports never forget that her role is more powerful than theirs. She also took solace in knowing that her boss and her peers believe she is competent. She saw that there was no need to restate or overstate her power and competence with any of her coworkers.
  7. She practiced interrupting her reflexive habits: a) She focused on breathing before speaking or responding; b) She paid attention to being patient and waiting at least one day before she responded to irritating emails; and c) She tried being curious and asking others how she could best support them rather than making demands that others support her.
  8. Finally, Allison had to the courage to share her behavior-change strategy with her colleagues, inviting their feedback and support as she moved forward.

Now Allison is eager to demonstrate respect for her coworkers and work toward collaborative solutions rather than one-way pronouncements. It has not been easy, and Allison says she is still a work in progress. But she is starting to reap the benefits of her commitment to change. She knows that it will take time to foster productive and enjoyable relationships. Still, she has impressed us all with her ability to adapt to new ways of working together. She shows no sign of bitterness or resentment; in fact, she seems happier and truly eager to work from a position of power that honors others as well as herself.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.


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