For healthcare, COVID has forever changed the rules of engagement

by Burl Stamp

Turnover. Burnout. Intense competition for talent. Lower staff engagement.

Never before have human capital issues consumed such a significant share of health system’s concerns about the future. While the pandemic has raised new challenges in retention and staff engagement across industries, nowhere are these issues more pronounced than in healthcare.

This is the final installment in our series Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus. When we started this series, some may have wondered why we were talking about the pandemic when the worst seemed to be over. Vaccines appeared to provide a viable path to control the virus. And cases were dropping dramatically after the surge in late winter. But today, it is more than just the emergence of highly contagious variants and vaccine resistance that concern healthcare leaders. Healthcare has always been among the most emotionally taxing industries for employees. Even before the pandemic, healthcare professionals experienced extensive emotional stress on the job, threatening engagement and satisfaction. The severity and duration of the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, leaving workers questioning their career, their employer, and their profession in general.

Smart leaders develop their teams one individual at a time

While the majority of a leader’s time is spent on activities and responsibilities to support the work team as a whole, his/her relationships and engagement with individual employees are significant determinants of success. The “Mentor” module of the T.E.A.M. framework focuses on three transformational leadership practices:

  • Daily Coaching
  • Observation
  • Development Dialogues

Each of these leadership best practices takes on new meaning and significance during the pandemic and its aftermath. Because COVID has impacted individuals and their families in such different ways, employees will recognize and value leaders’ efforts to individualize support during these challenging times.

“Do they really understand what I deal with every day?”

At some point, this question passes through every employee’s mind. During the pandemic, this concern has progressed from a question to a statement: “They don’t understand what I’m doing every day.”

Even when leaders really do understand what frontline staff are going through, employees’ perceptions are likely that they have no idea if they don’t see leaders in the trenches every so often. In today’s environment, they also need to stay more connected to gauge how day-to-day challenges and attitudes are changing.

So while the primary goal of Observation is to see and evaluate how the work is getting done, a side benefit is the additional visibility it affords during challenging times.

There are only two simple, straightforward goals for leader observation:

  1. Catch staff in the act of doing good and then reinforce that behavior through recognition and praise, and
  2. Coach for improvement when you see practices and/or behaviors that fall short of expectations.

While many managers believe that observation is necessary to correct lower performers’ deficiencies, its most powerful benefit is recognized by a team’s “stars”. The contributions of your best employees will be seen and recognized more frequently. And the fact that lower performers are being coached will instill a greater sense of confidence and admiration for the leader.

Visibility provides more opportunities for balanced feedback

For too long, the labor-intensive, burdensome annual performance appraisal has been the structured way that leaders provide feedback to employees. But approximately one-third of companies in other industries have abandoned the practice because it is expensive and ineffective. It is time for healthcare to follow suit.

Rather than using a “big bang” approach to feedback once a year, smart leaders recognize the power in brief, more frequent, consistent feedback throughout the year. Psychologists call them micro-actions. In the T.E.A.M. framework, we call it Daily Coaching. For many reasons, this immediate feedback is beneficial for both leaders and team members. Both praise and constructive criticism are more powerful when they closely follow the contribution or behavior.

Great mentors understand the power in listening

The third component of the Mentor module, the Development Dialogue, is one of the most important conversations a leader can have with each member of his/her team right now. Unlike the annual performance appraisal, this conversation focuses on listening.  It helps a leader really understand each employee’s thoughts on their strengths, career goals, and contributions to the team’s success. We suggest having this type of conversation with each team member at least twice a year.

Coming out of the pandemic, we recommend adapting this conversation to include questions that relate specifically to the  challenges of COVID. Potential questions and topics might include:

  • What has been most difficult for you over the past few months?
  • Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What do you hope leadership really understands about what you’ve been through?
  • How can your experience and skills contribute in an even bigger way to our team’s success?
  • How can I and other members of the team best support you right now?

Never has the mentoring and development of individual members been more important. Re-recruiting employees – especially stars – through Daily Coaching, Observation and Development Dialogues provides a clear path to improving engagement, engendering loyalty, and transforming workplace culture.

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