“Neither comprehension nor learing can take place
in an atmosphere of anxiety.”
— Rose Kennedy
In my coaching work I often hear from my clients that this person or that person “isn’t accomplishing any of the things we hired him for,” or “it has been six months and she isn’t making any progress.” I have heard it said about people up and down the line. Hearing this over and over, I found it hard to imagine there would be so many people out there who were not doing their jobs.
Once I started digging into it, I began to realize this was generally a false perception.
When I sit down and talk with these “underachievers,” they say they are approaching the goal they set out to achieve, and it’s a work in progress that is going well, or they tell me they are waiting for one final piece of information before submitting the report. The problem is, they are the only ones who know everything is OK.
Everyone has heard the adage, “No news is good news.” This is rarely, if ever, true in health care. You may not hear it from a patient who is experiencing chronic internal pain in his chest and doesn’t know what is causing it. You won’t hear it from a physician who is wondering why the new staff physicians who were promised a month ago haven’t come on board to help lighten the load. And you won’t hear it from hospital executives who are anxiously waiting for a report from a director on the status of patient satisfaction, financial reports or the next steps in the electronic medical record initiative.
Taking the last example, if you’re like most physician leaders, you’re working diligently with your team and several people in a few other departments to mesh all your efforts in order to make the electronic medical record process work seamlessly. That report due Friday to the executive committee will be on their desks on Friday when they asked for it, and they will be pleased with what they see in the report. The problem is, the executive committee members are being asked by the board if the numbers are improving, and they don’t know. Their anxiety is growing.
From Uncertainty Comes Anxiety
Are you suffering as a leader from the perception that you aren’t doing anything, or that you aren’t moving things forward in your organization? Does this feeling seem to be growing despite the reality that positive change is taking place? The reason could be that you are not effectively employing communication to relieve people’s anxiety.
Anxiety has been called “the space between the now and then.” People are always trying to get somewhere or they are waiting to see what is going to happen to them. When it’s an issue that is out of their hands and they don’t know how things are progressing, anxiety is the result. Anxiety is caused by uncertainty and the more uncertainty there is, the more the anxiety increases. It is a state of limbo that can create the perception of paralysis in your leadership.
Relieving the Concerns
No matter whether you are looking up the leadership ladder or down, you as a leader should always initiate information, and you should encourage your people to do the same to keep your own anxiety level low.
Physician leaders are often task-oriented by their nature. They like to seize a problem and solve it, or recognize a necessary task and complete it. So if a problem has not yet been solved or a task isn’t completed, to these leaders there is “no news,” and they don’t feel compelled to report anything.
However, in some situations, any news can be good news for the people you work for, or for those who work for you. In certain situations, such as the aftermath of mergers, or when replacements or new people are being recruited, a lack of information can create a toxic work environment. If no news is forthcoming, some people will be quick to fill in gaps in information about what is happening by making things up. Rumor and speculation need to be headed off before they can take hold.
Take recruiting for example. In many healthcare organizations, people are desperate for some relief from their workloads, and recruiting for new positions can take considerable time if done correctly. This time lag makes people anxious about their misery being prolonged indefinitely.
You may have received more than a hundred applications from highly qualified people for the two positions you are trying to fill. The process of reviewing them will take weeks, heaped on top of your clinical shifts and your other leadership duties.\
So at this point there is no news—right? Wrong. There is good news, and this is how you present it: “We have received more than a hundred applications from highly qualified applicants, so that means we’re going to get some quality people to fill these positions. The review process will take a few weeks, we’ll whittle it down to four applicants and then we’ll start interviewing the next week.”
That’s all you need to do. No big meeting or official letter. Just call people together for five minutes and give them this good news. Their anxiety will be relieved, and they will not be expecting more news or getting anxious for a few more weeks.
On the other hand, if your recruiting is not going so well, you need to impart that information, along with the “good news” about what you are doing to make the situation better.
Another adage is “Out of sight, out of mind.” Don’t think you will ever get away with that one in your healthcare leadership role. It goes both ways—up and down the ladder.
Good leaders are often engaged in building alliances with other departments, or working with executive staff to get the resources and support their people need. This often takes them out of the workplace and away from their team members.
The work you do outside has huge implications for taking care of your people. However, without communication with everyone about why you’re doing this and what it is accomplishing, the perception might just be that you’re “gone all the time.”
The remedy can be simple. Instead of silently rushing out the door at the last minute to your meeting, try popping in on some of your staff as you leave and saying, “Well, I’m off to see if we can get those people over in IT on the same page with us, so we can start getting some useful reports in here.” Don’t just say where you’re going, communicate what the value is to the team in you being out of the building. Be positive, and use a little humor.
Even if you only take the time to let a few people know where you’re going and what you’re doing, they will serve as your messengers. When someone asks them, “Where did the boss go?” instead of shrugging their shoulders, they’ll say, “He’s setting those IT people straight on those reports we’ve been needing.”
Don’t hide from your bosses either. Try to think of yourself as an entrepreneur—someone who has their own business. These people can’t afford to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Their livelihoods depend on them constantly reminding their bosses (clients) of their existence, their progress, and of their willingness to help when they can. Your livelihood may also depend on these things.
If everyone wonders what you’re doing or they feel you are underachieving, the problem may be simply that they don’t know any better. You can make their lives easier and alleviate their anxiety by keeping them well informed.
It’s Less Work Than You Might Believe
Continually communicating your progress on key issues may sound like a lot of work to heap onto an already overworked leader, but the benefits to you (including keeping your job) and the organization (including keeping good people) can be substantial. Also, there are ways to make it easy on you. It doesn’t take a lot of meetings, because it’s not about lengthy discussions or decision making. It’s just you passing on information to ease people’s minds.
Creating continual “touch points” like this takes relatively little time, but to a busy leader it can seem like just one more burden. However, investing this time creates a pattern and an expectation among your people and your superiors. They become more confident that if you are leading a task or program, you are working diligently on it. If they don’t hear back from you in a while, they won’t suffer as much anxiety because they are confident things are well under way and more information will be forthcoming soon.