Calls from the Front Line

Calls From the Front Line

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During the past year we’ve fielded two kinds of phone calls from healthcare leaders in Ontario:

 

The first type of call is from committed health care professionals whom we have trained in complexity leadership.
They say that during their training with us, years ago, the idea of using different skills in complexity was intellectually interesting, but now, in the thick of a very complex time, they have a vastly richer understanding and appreciation of how their new tools and skills are keeping their heads above water.
These leaders speak of having more clarity around how to manage their internal state, and as a result, feel more adaptive and purposeful in the roles they hold. They are surprised at how well the tools of leading in complexity serve them amid the crisis.
Although these leaders notice with sadness how much better they are coping than colleagues who are still looking for certainty in uncertain times, they also tell us how they are generously trying to help them by sharing what they know. These leaders are invaluable.
When these leaders tell us how their teams are managing through the chaos with less drama than in the past and how they step up to the challenge with the same resilience they demonstrate themselves, we are proud. We love those calls, and we’re happy to have helped by providing the tools and thinking that allow for that kind of resilience.
The second kinds of calls are harder to hear.
These healthcare leaders come to us through referrals, and they speak of frustration with endless uncertainty. They talk about feeling overwhelmed at the magnitude of their jobs and the endlessness of the work. They are beyond exhausted and feel a desperate desire to return to the way things were. They call hoping for answers, although they understand that answers are not to be had. We’re glad to get these calls, as dramatic and as hard as they are to hear, because at least we know we can help.
The calls we are most worried about are the ones that don’t come.

 

We know there are leaders out there on the front lines who aren’t coping and who are burning out. These silent calls are the reason for this post.

To lead effectively in the increasingly demanding circumstances that we face, leaders must develop themselves to a level of person, psychological, mental and interpersonal fitness.

 

Many of you are thinking of the current times as if they are an elastic band. You believe that you can stretch yourselves during hard times and then rebound to a simpler normal. But the elastic band metaphor doesn’t work this time. We now see people who are literally snapping before the opportunity for rebound arrives.

Though a vaccine offers some hope of stabilizing the immediate threat, the pandemic has made it clear that we cannot return to thinking the world operates with certainty and predictability. We’re now irrevocably aware of the number of interacting variables and can see that the world doesn’t work the way we thought. So how we act in this new world needs to change.

It is time for a new metaphor – a metaphor of growth. Where, given the fertile soil that a well-developed complexity leader can provide, we can all grow, progress and become sturdier as a result of the challenges we face.

Through the leaders from the first type of phone calls, we are sensing the possibility of a culture shift in healthcare that could be of the same magnitude as the workplace safety movement that swept through the province decades ago. We see the first shouts of emerging resilient cultures where leaders and their teams bounce back from the pressure of challenges. But we also see more than resilience. We see agility in workers who are led in ways that allow them to grow, adapt and innovate regardless of the circumstances, sometimes because of them.

 

To be an effective leader when your conditions change suddenly requires a sophisticated set of skills that allow you to manage your threat response, and then, amidst the confusion, lead and train others in acquiring those same skills.

 

Being thrust into chaos as healthcare leaders have throughout the pandemic without preparation or training for leading in complexity, creates massive uncertainty in the unprepared mind. This lack of predictability can set off many internal warning signals and ultimately create a compulsive need to seek certainty when none is available. Attempts to predict in a volatile, unpredictable situation can result in an emotional spiral with burnout as its end state. The energy spent looking for certainty and never finding it eats up the reserves of those leaders not yet equipped with alternative strategies. This reflective and repeated attempt to seek answers that don’t exist needs to be redirected.

It’s been hard to pinpoint what makes a leader resilient until now. But leadership researchers now understand how much psychological safety contributes to workspace performance. It has become clear that the number one job for leaders in times of crisis needs to be stabilizing teams mentally and psychologically to reduce burnout even in the most volatile times.

One leader of an Ontario Emergency Response Table confessed that she is relying heavily on colleagues who have developed Complexity Leadership skills. She confessed:

“I’m really worried when it comes to making ethical decisions, that people are so bogged down in the details and drama and emotionality that they won’t be able to make effective decisions at this level. I’m really seeing a great divide between those being able to manage their own internal overwhelm and reactivity and those who can’t get beyond it.”

 

 

Out of our commitment to developing resilience in healthcare leaders during these most trying of times, we are launching our Certified Complexity Leadership (CCL) program.

 

Our complexity Leadership curriculum gives leaders the tools, skills, habits and competencies they need to maintain focus, clarity, and performance when there are too many variables, too little control, and uncertainties far and wide. In addition to developing essential skills for leading in uncertain times, leaders also form a community of support to experiment, practice and share learning about these new ways of working. The CCL program is leadership training for today.


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Penny Paucha

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