Be careful what you wish for! Five tips to avoid the healthcare “management blues”

New title. New office. New status in the organization.

Being promoted to a healthcare management position is everything you’ve dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve, right? Not always.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review by professors Nishani Bourmault and Michel Anteby looks at why employees moving up to management roles experience what they describe as “managerial blues.” Given the stress of the pandemic, the healthcare management blues may be even more pronounced.

In “Research: Becoming a Manager Doesn’t Always Feel Like a Step Up,” Bourmault and Anteby describe why staff drivers moving up to managers in the Paris subway system frequently experienced disappointment in their new roles. The new managers described that in their old jobs, they dealt with life-and-death situations, consistently feeling a great responsibility for the lives of others. “On one subway train,” one driver related, “there are approximately 600 to 800 passengers, so we are responsible for all the passengers, for the safety, for everything that happens.”

While they reported some positive aspects of their new leader roles, their management jobs were not as meaningful as their former roles. One former driver expressed, “Really, we do nothing that matters.”

Sounds an awfully lot like healthcare, doesn’t it? The authors site another study where doctors in Norway and the UK saw managerial roles as “marginal” and lacking “gratification” compared to their past ones on the frontline.

So, what can leaders at all levels of healthcare management do to reduce the chances of developing the “managerial blues?” Here are five tips drawn from our research and work with great organizations across the country.

Stay connected to patients.

Whether you are a new manager or the CEO, talking with patients during regular leadership rounds is incredibly grounding and rewarding. Especially when I was having a tough day as a CEO, I’d find time to go out and talk with patients and families. It always reminded me of what was really important adn why we were there. Today, I get to do the same with the great healthcare organizations we work with. Conversations with patients always remind me that whatever problems I’m dealing with pale in comparison to what they’re going through.

Stay connected to your team and draw inspiration from their work.

Just as I’m humbled by what patients are dealing with, I’m always inspired and grateful for sacrifices staff members make. Some believe that leadership rounding is mainly about supporting staff. But when done well and in the right spirit, leaders usually get more out of the experience than their staff.

Jump in and help sometimes.

Rolling up your sleeves and making the day better for your team will make the day better for you, too. One of my favorites stories comes from focus groups we were conducting at Ascension Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital many years ago. During focus groups, nurses described how CNO Michael Bratton, RN saw how busy they were while he was rounding one evening. He offered to jump in and help. “He gave a patient a bath!” they exclaimed. As I probed further, I learned that that bath happened over four years ago … but they were still talking about it.

Think about and appreciate why supporting staff is an honorable, vitally important role.

Too often, organizations and new supervisors spend more time emphasizing the management, not the leadership, side of their role. It is important to manage the budget, quality reporting, and staffing. But these tasks will never be as rewarding as leading a dedicated team and helping them be at their best.

Find and nurture your sense of humility.

As a new CEO at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, I had the good fortune of attending an executive workshop led by Clay Christensen.  What Clay, a renowned author and Harvard Business School professor, shared with us regarding “disruptive innovation” was fascinating. But his advice on the leadership fault to guard against was more valuable – hubris. Sometimes the seeds of the hubris “disease” are sown in that very first supervisory position. They can affect not only our ultimate success, but also our ultimate personal satisfaction as leaders.