Northwest Organization of Nurse Leaders News

NWONL Leaders in Action May 8th 2020 - 3 min read

Desiree' McCue  M.B.A., B.S.N., R.N. CEN, CNML and Director of Nursing, Emergency Services OHSU and Doernbecher Children's Hospital shares with NWONL Leaders her personal insight into leading in an environment of fear.



Executive Summary

As a person who values having control of a situation and knowing the answers, leading in uncertainty is incredibly uncomfortable.  Even if you are not ordinarily uneasy with the imperfect or unknown, you can probably relate to some aspect of the challenge being a leader brings right now. When the stakes are high, and the economic fallout of the pandemic threatens our livelihood, it is easy to allow fear and uncertainty to take over and impact how we lead and communicate with our teams.


 Around six months ago, I was introduced to an article in the Harvard Business Review by executive coach and author Peter Bregman, titled “How to Lead When you are Feeling Afraid.”  The most striking thing I took from the article was Bregman’s advice on communication when we as leaders are uncertain of the future. I have adapted this advice to come up with my own formula for communicating when the stakes are high, not only for my team but for myself.

Getting Started

I like to start by acknowledging the impact on the team.  By starting with empathy, you are letting the people who report to you know that you have heard them and that you understand how hard things are right now.  You can even add a little bit about how the changes impact you.  However, be careful not to make it all about you.

Next Steps

Next, communicate the vision and direction. With so many healthcare companies resorting to layoffs or other measures of cost reduction to stay in business, it can be hard to see the potential of not only surviving but thriving in the future. It will require us to think and do business in new ways, to create a new way forward.  
As leaders, it is our job to communicate the resulting vision to our teams. When I describe a new idea, especially one that lies on the other side of adversity, I have to do some relating.  To be sincere, I have to believe in where we are going.  To do this, I align this ideal future state with my values and guiding principles.  Doing so makes my end communication heartfelt and aligns better with my organization.

Reality Check

Acknowledge that you do not have all the answers.  And that is ok.  Leadership expert, Davis Lewis from the London Business School, advises, that the first part to solving a problem you have never encountered before is admitting what you do not know.  The beautiful thing is that often, people will respect you for this.  Certainly much more than you pretending to know something you do not. 

Building Leaders

Remind people how capable they are of change.  Maybe you know that this team has weathered adversity in the past and come out stronger. Relate the challenges they face daily to remind them of their strength and resilience.  It is not a hard stretch in healthcare, where people help their patients overcome the odds regularly. 
Finally, Bregman advises repeating this message,  “You may become bored with it — and you may feel that you’re overdoing it —but use your newly developed emotional courage to feel those feelings and keep repeating yourself anyway. ”  (The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of my employer. – DM)