Editorial: Showing empathy, building healthcare leaders
A few weeks ago, I watched my little girl walk timidly into a classroom, hang her backpack on a small hook and take a seat amid a dozen tiny strangers.
The experienced parents casually waved goodbye while a handful of us first-timers crowded behind a two-way mirror. Even before stepping foot into this new world of preschool, some of the kids started to wail . . . my daughter most dramatically. The teacher and her aide tried to distract them, but the calls for mommy stopped only briefly when a new toy was presented.
After what felt like hours, a dry-eyed towhead, eager to start playtime, zeroed in on my daughter. She walked over and whispered in her ear. I saw my daughter take big gulps of air before pointing to a play kitchen. The two walked to it, hand in hand. Later, the girl got another classmate and then another. The girl, now a frequent protagonist of many of my daughter's stories, had just won over her classmates and the teachers.
From the other side of the glass, I was struck by her empathy and her ability to make the first day of school better for her new friends and herself. I quietly hoped she would retain that quality into adulthood and might someday be a great leader . . . or better yet, a politician. During debates on maintaining healthcare coverage for tens of millions of people by policymakers who don't risk losing their own insurance, an empathetic ear could make a difference.
Having serendipitously become a manager early in my career, I scoured books for leadership tips. A philosophy that resonated with me is outlined by Simon Sinek. In his 2014 book Leaders Eat Last, Sinek extolled the virtue of empathy and trust in gaining influence and loyalty. Because humans are pack animals, Sinek wrote, we thrive in group settings where we feel valued and integral. The best leaders prioritize the health and happiness of their teammates and are rewarded with peak performances.
As patient satisfaction and well-being become more intimately tied to the performance of healthcare organizations, leaders would be smart to listen to employees and become invested in their advancement. After all, it's the front-line workers who have the most frequent interactions with patients. Perhaps no other profession so often requires the employee to ask "how are you doing?" or "how are you feeling?" But how often is the employee being asked that question? And how often is a negative answer taken seriously and addressed?
Leaders of the most successful healthcare organizations say they look for people who care about quality and then constantly ask what it takes to improve. They pride themselves on listening and taking action. Many of these organizations are also proud of having this philosophy spread into the communities they serve. The goal, the providers say, is the greater good. The healthier and happier the community, the better results they'll have as guardians of the residents' well-being. Without fully expressing it, they're adhering to the belief that by empowering people with good health, both physically and emotionally, communities will be stronger and more successful.
Years from now, my daughter won't remember how her classmate helped her on that tough first day. While the two remain friendly, the camaraderie deteriorated by the next class as the kids began to compete for the teachers' time or the best toy. But I know the parents who witnessed that moment learned a lesson about empathy and maybe they'll bring it up as an example like I am now. Wouldn't we all be better for it?
For more lessons in leadership, join some of the top C-suite executives in the industry on Oct. 19-20 in Paradise Valley, Ariz. Modern Healthcare's Leadership Symposium is an exclusive gathering with candid discussion on some of the industry's most pressing matters. Kaiser Permanente's Bernard Tyson, Anthem's Joseph Swedish, Sutter's Sarah Krevans and Intermountain's Dr. Marc Harrison are just some of the leaders signed up to attend and speak. To register, visit ModernHealthcare.com/LeadershipSymposium.
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