No Easy Answers

How many of us “do right” by our leader­ship roles? By that I mean that we take our jobs seriously, we are sufficiently skilled, we take care of ourselves, and we attend to our own continuous learning. My long-time partnership with nurse leaders tells me that most of us do these things most of the time.We maintain a dedicated focus on professional excellence and goal achievement, self-care and leadership growth. As healthcare professionals, we under­stand that these are critical components of our success and the success of those we affect: our patients, colleagues, and staff.

So, how do we explain what some would call a significant “failure” when it is made by such a well-intended nurse leader? Phyllis is just this type of steward. She is devoted to doing her part to fulfill the organization’s vision, and she understands and commits resources to on-going learning and self-care for herself and the other members of her team.

Phyllis occupies a senior leadership role in a prominent health care system. She has held her position long enough to be adept at balancing the strategic and tactical requirements of her job. She has developed personal habits that enhance and support her capacity to focus, prioritize, and follow through. She nurtures her ability to set boundaries, to stay “on purpose,” and to recognize what is most important in the short and long run. She also knows she cannot perform optimally without a well-trained team.

Like the rest of us, Phyllis is not perfect.The biggest trial she has faced throughout her career is her distaste for interpersonal conflict.Yet, as she has matured as a leader, she has endured numerous such struggles, including, but not limited to, staff performance challenges.

Phyllis still doesn’t like these “conflicts,” but she feels she has learned how to handle them well enough. So, when Tony, a key team mem­ber, showed signs of deteriorating performance, she carefully considered its likely cause before taking action.

She recalled that Tony had complained about family pressure, the scope of his responsibility, and his lack of sufficient resources to manage his function. Although Phyllis couldn’t give Tony additional full-time equivalents, she did offer him extra staff help for a limited period of time.Additionally, she gave him more personal attention and support.Tony seemed to respond well, but as time went on, his performance again slipped.

Phyllis decided to give him another chance, and once more, Tony appeared to do better. But soon enough, his performance flagged again. This time, Phyllis took more stringent measures to address the problem.With the help of human resources, she developed and implemented a formal performance plan. In the next few months, Phyllis felt relieved because Tony seemed to be improving in the ways specified in the plan.

But something happened that upended Tony’s progress. It was a big transgression with major adverse consequences. Had Tony’s mis­take aired publicly, it could have derailed the organization’s strategy for the immediate future, and it would have had a grave effect of Phyllis’ reputation and tenure.

Specifically, as Phyllis and the team were reviewing the final “blueprint” for an upcoming institutional meeting, she learned that Tony intended to offer wholly incorrect data during the gathering.When she confronted him, Tony claimed that the false information was a misun­derstanding that was caused by others. But his professed innocence did not change the stark fact that he planned to deliberately deceive Phyllis and the entire organization. Had he proceeded, his report would have served as the inaccurate basis for approving the institution’s largest project in the coming year.

After learning about Tony’s indiscretion, Phyllis had a brief period of disbelief, anger, dread, and embarrassment.Then, she and the rest of the team went into “fix-it” mode. Her organization’s event was beginning in a matter of hours, and Tony’s presentation was a big part of the meeting agenda.

Phyllis and the team quickly created a strategy for damage control, and they managed to run the meeting well enough to achieve most of their objectives. Simultaneously, Phyllis and the human resources staff dealt with Tony’s errors, and he left the organization soon thereafter.

What is significant about this incident is that Phyllis did not understand what she did or didn’t do that permitted this near-miss accident to occur. She is ashamed that it happened, and she wants to learn everything she can so that it never happens again.

Further details of Tony’s actions are less important than the lessons this unfortunate event holds for all of us. Despite our own best efforts, we too may face serious mistakes that tran­spire—or almost transpire—on our watch.Whether the consequences are large or small, like Phyllis, we too can benefit from reflecting on our own unwitting contributions to preventable leadership errors.

In this case, Phyllis reviewed how she conducted herself in the months that led up to this key organizational event. She thought about the pre-meeting preparation environment she and others created, the “health” of the team that was responsible for the meet­ing’s success, how she managed Tony during this time, and what behavior she had modeled for him and others.

Here are some examples of the questions Phyllis contemplated:

  1. Could I have prevented this situation by being less tolerant and more forceful with Tony earlier on?

2. Was I too trusting that Tony was following up with his responsibil­ities as he had promised? Should I have been in “trust, but verify” mode sooner?

3. Did the people around me know that Tony’s performance challenges continued? Did they see that he was faltering, and if so, what stopped them from telling me?

4. Because Tony’s performance affected the entire team and organization, what other signs of trouble did I miss?

5. Why did Tony intentionally cover up this mistake? Did I and/or others do something to make it unsafe for him to tell us the truth? If so, what was it?

6. How can I align with the rest of the team to prevent similar prob­lems from occurring in the future?

These are just some of the questions that Phyllis considered. If you were in Phyllis’ shoes, what else would you investigate? In the end, what would you conclude about the role you played in this unfortunate series of events?

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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