Leadership in a crisis

Helen Northall, chief executive PCC, discusses how to lead your team in challenging times

It feels as if health and care leaders have been working in a crisis environment for nearly a year.  As well as the peaks of coronavirus, leaders have needed to try to keep the routine work going and manage a team of staff with higher sickness absence and anxiety than ever before – and implement a nationwide vaccination programme.  In addition, teams have had to adjust to new ways of working – in COVID-19 safe ways, with PPE, and using virtual ways of working. 

The pressure on PCN managers, practice managers and managers of NHS trusts has been extreme – to highlight just a few areas. As pressure continues for prolonged periods of time the risk for managers is that they may slip into a command and control mode of leadership, rather than developing a strong, shared sense of meaning and purpose.

Remember what you are there to achieve. What does the future look like, and how can you do the right thing for patients?  Even if it needs to be managed in a virtual environment, try to keep the engagement with staff, patients and communities strong in order to try to develop meaning together. Bringing people on board will help them accept that they need to behave differently.

So, be clear about ‘What we are here for’. If the team has a clear purpose, and know what success looks like, the focus can be kept on the bigger picture and help you lead through the most difficult periods. Engaging patients and communities will help them to be more on board with your different ways of working. We have heard that patients are becoming less patient and more demanding; although involving them could feel like another item on the to do list, it will help them understand the pressures you are facing leading to, maybe, a little more patience.

Find and understand each other’s strengths; what can staff, patients and communities bring to help you through this difficult time? What can they offer to help you and your team to keep working towards the bigger picture? It may be that connections to other groups or organisations – new links for your social prescribing link worker to investigate, perhaps – may help take some of the overall pressure off. Staff members may have identified a different way of working, and thiscould be a solution to some of the problems.

A focus on the bigger picture – having this as an anchor for meaning – will help you and your team through the periods when you have to act with urgency. If you communicate why this is needed with transparency, and are transparent about why you are focusing on certain problems, continually update your team – keeping a focus on the big picture and acting with empathy – it will help your team to support you, and realise the overall goals. It’s also important to build trust and allow your team to make mistakes, and to learn from it. Consider ways to strengthen the empathy in your approach and reflect on how to build your emotional intelligence as a leader. People look to leaders in difficult times, and really being there, and listening, helps keep the team on board, and resilient.

Involving your patients and the community will help them to understand, and may just buy you time to come up with new solutions. We hope the need to lead in what has become an almost continual crisis will end soon but, in the meantime, use the strengths of those around you.

PCC is supporting leaders across health and social care with coaching and leadership support; contact [email protected] for details.

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