Whether you are a senior executive, middle manager or frontline staff member, health care seems to get more complicated every day. Endless regulations, increasing financial challenges, pressures to guarantee quality and safety. And now, the uncertainty of health care reform.
But while the issues become increasingly complex, the communication frontline health care professionals need most from managers arguably becomes more straightforward, focused and— perhaps counterintuitively— basic as times get more complicated.
Think about frontline employees’ most fundamental concerns. Do you appreciate my work, especially in light of the stress I’m often under? Have you helped me understand important issues and our responses to them? Do you care about my feelings on subjects and circumstances that really matter to me?
Staff members understand that times are tough and that there are no easy answers. But in the face of increasing uncertainty, they need some anchor— some stable, trusted source— that helps them weather the storm of unpredictable problems and stress. Managers must be that source of stability.
First and foremost, employees seek leaders who will listen to their questions, concerns and ideas. Then, having been heard, staff members wants and need responses that are straightforward and that address their most basic concerns, fears and desires. The following three fundamental messages are a great place to start.
Every day we entrust the lives of patients to our staff. But often, we underestimate their ability to comprehend and appreciate the difficult organizational decisions we make to achieve operational, clinical and financial success. It is easy to slip into the mindset that employees only ant to know, “What’s in it for me?” But the most successful organizations with the most positive cultures move intentionally toward, “What’s in it for us?”
Clarifying important issues and decisions with organization-wide implications does not mean that we have to explain every move we make as managers. Explaining the rationale behind a new staffing plan that deals with increasing or declining volume is reasonable; explaining why a colleague worked an extra shift last week is not.
The most productive “why” messages are seldom delivered solely in print. Staff meetings or department huddles that promote open dialogue around relevant, meaningful issues offer staff the opportunity not only to understand, but also to react to important decisions.
When offered sincerely and genuinely, appreciation for the important work done by staff can never be expressed too often. Employees report that messages of appreciation are most meaningful when they are: 1) spontaneous, 2) specific and 3) genuine.
Unfortunately, organizational goals to improve employee recognition often result in programs that include new rules, point systems and “prizes,” when what staff members want most are simple thank you’s for their efforts that are delivered sincerely and spontaneously.
Occasional planned events that recognize a team’s hard work are fine, but employees prefer that their individual contributions be specifically acknowledged. “Thank you for working hard” is fine; “Thank you for staying late last shift to help us get through those new admissions” is much better.
Expressions of appreciation fail when employees sense that they are delivered out of obligation, not sincere feelings of gratitude. For example, written thank you notes are terrific… until staff perceive that their “personal” note simply represents another checkmark on their manager’s to-do list to meet a quota.
When thinking about messages of appreciation for staff, the advice for couples in sending flowers applies. In other words, would your spouse or significant other rather receive a dozen expensive roses on Valentine’s Day or a single rose unexpectedly just to say, “I love you”? One is delivered out of obligation; the other spontaneously from the heart.
Unfortunately, not everything in life— especially in a hospital— goes exactly as we would like. Particularly in today’s economy, tough unpopular decisions are a reality. Being indifferent regarding their impact on frontline staff does not have to be.
Historically, health care has shunned the use of simple, sincere expressions of regret because it might suggest acceptance of blame. But acknowledging staffs’ inconvenience, discomfort, or even emotional pain can go a long way in strengthening a positive, constructive relationship with them.
Finally, communication that incorporates all three of the above messages often is most compelling. Using a real-life, real-time example from today’s tough environment illustrates this point. “Given how hard everyone is working right now, it is ironic and unfortunate that this is the year we can’t grant salary increases. Because the number of uninsured patients coming to us for care keeps growing, our reimbursement has declined over $5 million since last year. I’m sorry these tough economic conditions are unfortunately hurting our dedicated staff.”
Like the broadcast newsman reporting from the middle of a raging hurricane, our staff need something strong and predictable to hang onto to weather today’s storm. Straightforward communication from managers that expresses appreciation, regret, and increases understanding is exactly the solid anchor they need to deliver the kind of safe, compassionate care our patients expect and deserve.