Is Your Healthcare Team Warm Enough?

Healthcare teamworkTamika rushes into the clinic. She’s late. 32 minutes late, to be precise. As she arrives she meets the eyes of the Medical Receptionist, who glances at her disapprovingly. Darting into the back, she pulls off her gloves and hurriedly hangs her coat in her locker.

Her manager, Kate, is suddenly there. “You’re late” she declares. 

“I know. The bus broke down,” she replies. “Sorry.”

Her boss turns and walks out.

Tamika quickly stashes her lunch in the lounge refrigerator and clips on the badge that identifies her name and title (“Medical Assistant”). She rushes past two docs and an RN on her way to the floor.

Tamika’s co-workers are annoyed. Today’s schedule is packed. It doesn’t help that the clinic’s been understaffed for weeks. Tamika’s late arrival complicates an already stressful day. No one says “Good morning, Tamika.” No one smiles at her. Instead, one of the nurses shoves a chart into her hands. Another comments off-handedly “Dr. Thomas is behind already. So much for lunch breaks.”

Their annoyance is palpable and Tamika quickly picks up on it. She becomes defensive. For the rest of the day employee, team, and boss work amid tension, interacting only when necessary, each counting the minutes until the clock strikes 5pm.

THE AFFECT EFFECT

Sound familiar? I bet it does.

Interactions like this one take place at hospitals and clinics across the country, each and every day. Healthcare workplaces are high-contact, high-stress, compassion-demanding environments. The volume and pace of care delivery combined with the human instinct to view everything through the lens of our own self-interest means that little things can quickly erode even basic courtesy between people. Is it really a surprise that any instinct to be warm in interactions with others gets sacrificed in the name of efficiency or as a consequence of culture? Certainly not.

And that’s a problem, because the presence of warmth in team interactions shapes their performance every single day.

Warmth is related to a person’s affect – the way one’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language manifest their thoughts and emotions. Warmth is experienced when the affect of a person leads you to believe they care about your problem or concern and genuinely want to help. When we encounter warmth, it puts us at ease. When patients, colleagues, or leaders encounter someone with a warm affect, they describe them as approachable, genuine, or kind. We have, each of us, worked with bosses and colleagues who exuded warmth, and those who didn’t.

Warmth, it turns out, plays a significant role in how well teams function and how much they achieve. Research shows that teams with higher levels of collegiality and caring are more engaged, more resilient, and have lower turnover. They navigate stress, overcome obstacles, and adapt to change more successfully than teams who report a less courteous or supportive atmosphere. They also report significantly higher patient satisfaction scores. Nice matters, folks.

THERE’S ANOTHER WAY

Consider all of the places a little bit of warmth might have made a difference upon Tamika’s arrival to work. If the Medical Receptionist had offered Tamika a reassuring smile, it may have put her at ease. If Tamika’s boss chose to ask “Are you okay?” instead of declaring “You’re late,” perhaps Tamika’s stress level would have started to diminish. If Tamika had instead told Kate “I’m really sorry I’m late. The bus’s engine started steaming while we were on the freeway. We had to pull over and wait for another bus to come take us the rest of the way. I feel terrible,” perhaps her added detail and sincere regret would have diffused her boss. If Kate had nodded and said “Okay, no problem. Catch your breath then jump in on Dr. Thomas’s schedule,” perhaps all would have ended up in a better state of mind.

Though it may sound like a “squishy” topic, it’s not. The interpersonal dynamic of warmth can be observed, documented, and, thankfully, nurtured. After more than 15 years training leaders and working with teams, I’ve come to believe that warmth is a foundational component of high-performing teams and something leaders must tirelessly promote in a variety of ways.

HOW TO WARM THINGS UP

If you need to infuse your team with a healthy dose of courtesy and kindness, do the following:

  1. Hire right. Leaders must seek out warmth when hiring. Yes, qualifications, skills, experience, and talent are all key factors to consider when evaluating a candidate, but so too is the nature of their demeanor. As you interact with candidates, be aware of how their affect makes you feel. Do they put you at ease? Do they seem genuinely interested in your interaction? Also key in on the ways they describe their past workplaces. Do they articulate a nuanced understanding of the challenges others faced or do they scapegoat the boss, the team, or the organization for problems or failures?
  2. Manufacture fun. Warmth is also present on teams where employees have been able to form meaningful, sophisticated relationships with one another. In fact those relationships, research suggests, are key to fostering employee engagement. Leaders who organize the celebration of birthdays, use teambuilding activities at meetings, host an occasional staff retreat, or support a monthly potluck lunch contribute to and even accelerate collegiality. This kind of “fun with a purpose” fosters more unity and affection between colleagues, making it more likely that warmth becomes a naturally occurring phenomenon.
  3. Teach them how. Successful leaders help employees challenge assumptions. Teach your team to avoid the assumption of malice and snapping to judgment of others’ behavior or intentions. Also, give employees feedback on how their affect may be perceived by others. And since there are times when it’s much harder to remain warm toward others, remind employees of the need to deploy the facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language that conveys warmth, even if they don’t feel authentic caring in the moment. Along the way, role model the kind of demeanor you expect from your team.
  4. Remove the frozen. The most successful teams are led by managers who expect that all employee interactions are heavy on courtesy and respect. In fact, they insist on it. There’s no such thing as a high-performing team with toxic personalities. The best leaders simply do not tolerate the presence of discourteous or disrespectful behavior. Remove toxic contributors whose cold demeanor or icy barbs harms the team and fails to meet expectations.

Every day employees face a phalanx of patients, families, co-workers, and providers, some of whom can be noisy, brusque, and demanding. It can be easy for kindness and courtesy to fall by the wayside. Don’t let it. Leaders who champion the presence of warmth, who set the expectation of it’s presence, who remind and refresh team members of it’s importance, and who rally to make it a part of the culture of the team, are creating the conditions necessary for teams to thrive.

Those conditions, it turns out, are nice and warm.

Joe Mull, M.Ed is President of Ally Training & Development, which provides dynamic leadership training and staff development programs to healthcare professionals. In demand as a speaker and trainer on employee engagement in healthcare, he is the author of the book Cure for the Common Leader: What Physicians & Managers Must Do to Engage & Inspire Healthcare Teams. For more information, visit http://cureforthecommonleader.com

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