When I started as a Student Nurse 29 years ago, my warmth, compassion and empathy were applauded, even considered a strength.
I was not the most technically capable student, my written work was not the best, and I often just did enough. My interpersonal skills however were my strength. I naturally put myself alongside my patients and colleagues. I was always looking for how I could support people, to understand their viewpoint and their experience. Rather than making a judgement on people and their behaviours, my default position is always to see good in people and there is always a reason why people do things. I am not saying I never judge or put nails in peoples coffins. I do everyday as following my default position can be exhausting. It is far easier to follow the path frequently followed, rather than the path less travelled. My preference though is to understand.
This is my point really. the majority of the time warmth, compassion and empathy are not widely valued behaviours in our society especially when shown by men. If you express these behaviours outside of the patient/carer (health professionals) relationship they are seen as a weakness. You are seen as a pushover, weak, lacking toughness, thin skinned, girly. As a teenager and young adult, when I was turned down by a girl or dumped they would always say I was too nice. TOO NICE!!!! That still pisses me off! I never realised that being unpleasant was an attribute to be proud of.
As I said at the beginning my people skills were applauded and encouraged as Student Nurse and a Staff Nurse. I am certain a lot of these attributes contributed to me eventually being promoted to Charge Nurse and given the opportunity to manage my own ward.
That was when it all changed. My strengths were now weaknesses, as they would be in wider world. I was sent on leadership courses that encouraged my to be transformational in my leadership, to blend organisational goals with the interests of the staff. To win them over with compassion, but to have accountability. I clearly embraced this approach. However the NHS at that time was not quite ready for this wholesale cultural change. The prevailing culture was still command and control. The I say jump, you say how high culture. I was young and naïve and knew my way of seeing the world was right and everyone would applaud me and thank me for bringing this enlightened leadership to my ward. How wrong I was. I was considered weak for listening to staff and encouraging them to follow their interest. I made quite a few mistakes as all new managers do and that was not the problem, the problem was the under current, the belief that I was a push over and my leadership was not strong enough. People would say that I needed to toughen up, I needed to punish more than I praised and then I would get the respect of my staff. I was constantly made to feel ashamed of my ability as a leader. As a result I started to disengage with my role as ward manager. I could not be that manager, I just could not adapt to being a hard manager. I could not make examples of people. My values would not let be that manager. Therefore I became ineffective, deeply unhappy and eventually mentally unwell. I was just unable to adapt to a way of interacting with people that was the direct opposite of my core values. I was a ward manager for a decade, for the majority of that time I felt deeply unhappy and disengaged with leadership and management. It appeared to me that the NHS as a whole extolled an inclusive, compassionate approach to leadership and management, but actually practiced an adversarial, confrontational approach. I just could not reconcile that gap.
Now don’t get me wrong I do not blame the NHS or the people who practiced this approach, this was and is in some cases the culture they have grown up and live in. This is their paradigm it is difficult and sometimes impossible for them to see the world differently.
Thankfully I had some very supportive people around me that could see what my strengths were and were prepared to help me save my career, and helped me change direction and take up the roles I now have in the organisation, where my behaviours are again considered a strength.
Thankfully the culture not only in the NHS but across society is shifting towards a compassionate, empathetic approach to leadership and management and even living. We now recognise that we need to look after each others mental health in an increasingly complex world. Researchers like Brene Brown and psychologists like Martin Selligman and Stephen Covey highlight how compassion, empathy and happiness have a positive effect on our work and home life. If we lead with compassion your team will be more effective.
If you are a leader that struggles with a command and control approach to management. Getting alongside your staff, finding out who they really are and what motivates them. Listen to what they want and help them succeed in your team. You will reap the rewards. You will have to be brave, accept that you will make mistakes, and learn openly from them.
If you want to learn more about connecting with your staff and leading with compassion get in touch.