“I just don’t know how to get my workplace back to where we were before the pandemic.”
It’s the most frequent question I’ve received by far these last few months. Both leaders and staff crave “returning to normal.”
The first step is to break this myth. “Normal” isn’t a place you can go—it’s like OZ.
Even if you had a great culture, striving to re-create the past won’t work. With words and actions, leaders must validate staff’s lived experiences and then shine a light on the future they are co-creating. But how do you do that when there’s still so much unrest, distress, and uncertainty?
Make the space for closure
Recently, I met with a team of ICU case workers who as nurses witnessed the worst of the pandemic in their hospital. As wonderful as the team and their leader are, they had never made the space to tell their stories. These stories haunted them, but the message they had received from the overall culture was “emotions are soft stuff,” so they didn’t think to share them. No surprise that physical symptoms followed.
There is nothing that will unite your team more than listening to each other’s stories—including your own. The vulnerability it takes to be seen ignites connection as we witness and understand what we’ve each gone through in the past 2 years. Ceremony is critical in groups of humans. Your job as a leader is to create a safe space for everyone to share.
If people don’t want to contribute a story, they can contribute a song, a picture, or a piece of art. Or dedicate a wall in the breakroom where they can express their feelings. By creating this space, you establish both respect and closure—which is what we desperately need to move forward. Not talking about the impact of the pandemic is detrimental and will keep your team frozen, sending emotional conversations underground. Start with a small group and provide several opportunities – people will participate or they’ll contribute something to the wall space. Ask the group how long the memorial wall needs to stay up.
Make cultural change a group endeavor
A leader’s job is to say what you see. You alone can’t change the culture. Your job is to hold up a mirror so that your staff can see how their own behaviors contribute to the overall team culture.
For example, one manager asked staff to write two words that best described how they felt leaving their last shift. Then the manager asked them to think about the best shift they ever worked anywhere and choose the two words that best described how that felt. The leader then compiled the results into two posters and presented them to her staff at the next meeting with a blank poster separating the two. She handed out sticky notes and asked everyone to write down one thing that they could do every day that would move the team from “HERE” to “THERE” and to sign their names. She began by writing “I can stop lamenting what we had, and uplift what we have.”
From now on, we must lead with our hearts. There’s no other compass.
Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN, is an internationally recognized patient safety and health culture expert. Kathleen has spoken on leadership, communication, patient safety, and peer relationships to hospital executives and nurse leaders for twenty years.
All of her books come from her passion to understand the stories of nurses. Her books, “Ending Nurse to Nurse Hostility” and “Speak Your Truth” illuminate our relationships with our peers and physician partners. She is also co-author of “The Dauntless Nurse” which was written as a communication confidence builder.
Kathleen is also a guest Op Ed writer to the Seattle Times and has been interviewed twice on NPR’s “People’s Pharmacy”. Her Tedx Talk calls for changing our belief system from a hierarchy to equality in order to keep our patients safe – and also explains how disaster thrust her into ‘the best profession ever’.