Undercutting Our Personal Power

Judi is a nurse who does reasonably well in her job as a hospital manager. Her position doesn’t come with a big budget, but she knows how to work cooperatively with people to achieve her goals and the goals they share together. She is a hard worker, and she is generally acknowledged for doing her work well enough.

But for some time now, Judi has known that she is not as effective as she could be. When she is honest with herself, she recognizes that she often acts in unproductive ways. Although she may look good on the surface, like a duck appearing to glide easily on smooth water, Judi is paddling very hard underneath.

Judi knows that some of her habits limit her potential for success—not only at work, but in the rest of her life, too. So, recently, she developed a kind of inventory of her unproductive
behaviors. She did this because she wanted to identify and understand more about her actions and motivations. Here is a short list of the behavioral patterns she identified:

• Judi has a hard time saying no. She takes on too much and then tries to do it all,
discounting the personal or professional cost. She works long hours, and her relationships suffer as a result. She is tired almost all the time, and there are warning signs that her physical health is affected by her lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and insufficient rest.

• Related to her reluctance to say no, Judi recognizes that she wants to be needed. When colleagues ask for her help, she feels validated and wanted. She doesn’t like to admit it, but she says she seeks validation and the appreciation that others offer when she says yes. Her strong need for appreciation has been unconscious until now, but at this point, Judi sees that this robust drive has preempted other imperatives such as taking better care of herself.

• Judi has a hard time setting and sticking to priorities. Like many healthcare managers, her job is complex, and there are frequent day-to-day “fires” that capture her attention—even when they are not urgent. Judi has sought out new tools and training in time management, but she admits that she hasn’t reviewed her learning or practiced new time-saving techniques.

• Judi has a strong distaste for conflict. For example, she is quite bothered when direct reports don’t perform as they should. But when she has the chance to coach or teach them to do better, she shies away if doing so will require a tough conversation. Instead, when direct reports are not pulling their weight, she goes out of her way to be “nice” and give them second and third chances. She tells herself she does this because she wants to be supportive, and she believes this is true—in part. But the rest of the story is that she doesn’t want to confront or set boundaries because it will make her feel uncomfortable.

As Judi reflected on these and other ineffective patterns, she realized that she often takes the easy way out of difficult situations. Saying “yes” too much, avoiding conflict, and succumbing to being needed and appreciated are ways of “self-soothing,” or opting to feel good in the moment. There is nothing wrong with feeling good, but when it is done at the expense of taking initiative and doing the right thing, it is self-defeating. Eventually, we can become blind to the big price we are paying for our unwillingness to challenge ourselves to grow and excel.

So what is that big price? Maybe we will feel a little badly that we’ve taken the easy road, but there is a much bigger and more damaging consequence: that is, the loss of our personal power as a leader. Being exhausted, not attending to staff performance issues, and sacrificing long-term priorities for short-term “emergencies” all take a toll on our effectiveness and our value in the eyes of others. When we have sacrificed best practice for what is easiest, we have diminished our power, authority, and leadership potential.

We may not realize it, but by succumbing to and gratifying our immediate needs versus tending to the more important responsibilities of our roles, we have reduced our capacity to think about and to choose how we want to be as a leader. Do we want to be effective by making thoughtful decisions, opting for difficult choices when needed, and engaging in challenging conversations? Or, do we want to self-soothe and lose the opportunity to do right by our leadership positions, our patients, and the people we want to influence?

Judi decided to stop being hijacked by her short-term emotional needs. Instead, she vowed to be more courageous and practice being the leader she knew she could be, even if it caused her some initial discomfort. Here is what she chose to do when she was tempted to take the easy way out:

1. Count to 10 and breathe deeply while doing it. This simple act prompts a biological reset; we feel more relaxed, and we are better able to think about our options versus reacting in the moment. Doing this is a healthful way to buy time.
2. After breathing deeply, Judi decided she wouldn’t address the issue until she’d had a chance to make a considered decision about what to do. She wanted to reflect—even if just for a moment—on the problem. If she needed to respond immediately,
she would say something like “please give me a minute.” This would allow her to mentally step out of the situation and observe it, almost as a third party might see it. Observing, even for a moment, would provide her with a fresh perspective on the circumstances, as well as the other players and herself.
3. When a courageous action was called for, Judi pledged that she would not make excuses or hide. She dedicated herself to rehearsing tough conversations before they happened when she had that luxury, and she also promised herself that she would practice saying “give me a minute” and “no.” She knew she might be clumsy with these words at first, so she also gave herself permission to keep trying until they came naturally.

Finally, Judi vowed to freshen her vision and purpose as a leader. She was genuinely dedicated to good patient care and her role in providing it. She also believed in personal humility and service. Judi knew if she stayed focused on her values and her potential, she would find the courage to practice, grow, and eventually excel in her leadership role.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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