Sara is a young nurse leader with loads of potential. A few years ago, she left direct patient care to take an advocacy role in her local area, and last year she took another advocacy position with a large association. She is eager to focus her considerable talents on healthcare policies that will make life better for patients and the institutions that serve them.
Sara is a hard worker, and she never shirks from fully preparing for the challenges before her. Sara also has a strong sense of right and wrong. While this usually serves her well, recently she began to feel frustrated with how things are versus how they “should be.” She was especially irritated with several of the healthcare CEOs in her region. She said they didn’t know the substance of key policy directives, and she also complained that they talked down to her because she is young and attractive.
It is reasonable that Sara was concerned that her colleagues didn’t know key elements of their jobs, and it is also understandable that she was distressed by what she considered to be poor professional behavior from people who were many years her senior. She was justified in expecting better.
But Sara couldn’t let go of her indignation. She insisted that she was right to be incensed, and she complained that she was hindered by their bad behavior. She was quite emotional when she talked about her colleagues’ transgressions and their effects on her. Unfortunately, some of her other peers started to complain about Sara’s own “bad behavior.”They experienced her grievances as whining and immature, and they wanted her to “get over it and move on.”
As a result, Sara’s work relationships began to suffer, and she was having trouble focusing on important policy initiatives. She knew she was not at her best, but she couldn’t see a way out of her predicament. She said she was stuck because she was right and the CEOs were wrong, and she didn’t see that she could, or should, change herself when it was her older colleagues who should change.
Many of us can relate to Sara’s dilemma because we, too, have been caught in the web of other people’s imperfections and their effects on us. It can be quite difficult to see that other people’s poor behavior can adversely affect how we behave, too. It’s also hard to accept that other people don’t always behave the way we think they should. We, too, may have asked what Sara was asking: how can I maintain my high standards and continue to work productively when those who should know better fall short of my expectations?
Eventually, Sara found ways to move on. She made progress by:
1. Remembering a truth that’s obvious but easy to overlook: we cannot change anyone but ourselves. We can try to influence, cajole, lecture, complain in front of them or behind their backs, but, ultimately, no one will improve or change anything about themselves unless they want to. As we mature, we can try better tactics, such as being assertive and asking for what we need from others clearly and without being aggressive. But even then, we cannot guarantee that they can or will meet our needs. In the end, we must attend to ourselves.
2. For Sara, the next step was to notice where she was placing her attention. She understood that instead of focusing on her own work and her own behavior, she was concentrating on the actions and problems of others. She also realized that as compelling as it was to focus on them, it was also a luxury. Unless Sara was blessed with boundless energy and endless goodwill with her peers, she was choosing to tarnish her reputation and devote her most productive hours to addressing the shortcomings of the CEOs rather than doing her own work.
3. But what was her own work? Certainly, Sara knew her job description and what she was responsible for. But was she clear about her priorities? What were her most significant goals, and, equally important, how did she want to comport herself as she sought to achieve them? As she thought about her priorities, Sara did a mental evaluation of her progress. She considered whether she was advancing her projects as well as she had planned. She was also honest with herself about whether she was conducting herself like the leader she wanted to be.
Like many of us, Sara saw that there was room for improvement between what she wanted to achieve as a leader and what she was achieving as a leader. She saw that she was spending a lot of time thinking and talking about others’ problems at the expense of her own effectiveness. That gap served as a wake-up call for Sara. She realized that she could refocus her attention and concentrate on closing that gap.
4. Lastly, Sara thought clearly and carefully about the effect the CEOs’ behavior had on her. Was she really hindered by the way they treated her? Was she truly a victim of their poor habits and lack of professionalism? Although she was mighty exasperated, Sara concluded that, in fact, their conduct did not interfere with doing her job. So, eventually, Sara chose to reframe her view of their behavior as annoying irritations that she could live with and manage. She did not condone their actions, but she did affirm that she would always speak up for herself and ask for what she wanted. She also declared that she would no longer let her frustration about the CEOs distract her from doing her job and accomplishing her goals.
In the end, Sara saw that she had inadvertently abdicated her power as a leader and as a competent professional by concentrating on poorly behaving colleagues instead of concentrating on herself. She understood that her misplaced attention profoundly affected her productivity, work ethic, reputation, and career potential. Finally, Sara rededicated herself to focusing on her own work and to nurturing her potential to become the outstanding nurse leader she knows she can be.
* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.