Healthcare has evolved into a complex and interdependent world that requires strong leaders. More and more, this leadership role falls to physicians. You're not just responsible for your patients these days. You have to lead the entire care team while managing your practice and your relationships with organizations like hospitals and insurers. And now more than ever, the risks of weak leadership are more than just a few dissatisfied patients. There are serious legal and financial issues to consider, too.
A June 2002 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that physicians with the most lawsuits were more likely to have patients complain that the physician was rude, disrespectful and did not listen or return telephone calls.
The same month, the American Journal of Nursing reported that 94% of 1,200 doctors, nurses and administrators surveyed had witnessed disruptive behavior by at least one physician, and nearly one-third knew of at least one fellow employee who quit because of the behavior of a physician.
These physician behaviors reflect unacceptable personal leadership. Personal leadership is behavior encompassing integrity, honesty, temperance, mutual respect and listening. These qualities form the tapestry of who we are and how we are perceived as leaders. Patients and staff observe our behavior and form perceptions about us as individuals. Right or wrong, their perception is reality. How we perceive ourselves is almost irrelevant if we have no insight to the importance of their perception.
Unfortunately, some physicians are unaware of how they are perceived and what developmental needs they have-needs that, if addressed, could help them achieve greater success and job satisfaction while lowering their malpractice liability.
Can you teach an "old doc" new tricks? Absolutely. There are three keys to achieving greater personal leadership effectiveness: awareness, accountability, and follow-up.
Awareness is the most difficult step. The physician may have to be convinced of the benefits of leadership development. He or she must be open to improvement. Willingness to change is a personal choice, and choosing to improve is a powerful sign.
The physician who proactively works on improving his or her leadership effectiveness will succeed not only in personal improvement but also in improving the practice environment, including patient and employee satisfaction, as well as lowering personal liability.
How does one become aware of their leadership strengths and developmental opportunities? One way is by using a 360-degree feedback program, a tool used by executive coaches who work with high-level corporate leaders. The term describes a process in which you evaluate yourself on a set of criteria and are also evaluated by those with whom you work. The feedback is used to facilitate leadership change through accountability and follow-up, while documenting leadership improvement.
Awareness, however, is not enough. True improvement requires ongoing accountability. An executive coach, a person experienced in assisting successful people achieve leadership change, is assigned to the physician. The coach speaks with the physician monthly and is a friendly guide along the path of change while gently reminding the physician they are personally accountable for their improvement.
Physicians are encouraged by the coach to "go public" with their intention to improve their leadership, to tell each individual they work with about their goals to improve. Going public helps others see the physician is aware of his/her development needs and is being proactive about improvement (accountable). Further, the physician enlists co-workers in the quest to improve. This seemingly small gesture greatly enhances the entire office's perception of the physician!
During follow-up, co-workers are asked if the physician's leadership behaviors have improved. It is an objective measure of the improvement effort. Ninety-nine percent of individuals who follow the prescription for leadership change outlined above are perceived as being more effective leaders.
The behavior of a physician leader is visible to partners, employees and patients. It is perceived as being first-class or objectionable, with very little middle ground. Even so, a 360 program could benefit all physicians, because one thing is for sure: There is no end to how effective we can be as an individual. We can always improve.
Michael S. Woods, M.D., is principal of the Woods Development Institute, Pipersville, Pa., and a member of the Modern Physician Editorial Advisory Board.