A tale of two nurses
The coronavirus has cast a light on the inner workings of a hospital and the work performed by health-care providers across functions, both on a regular basis and in times of crisis, such as the one we are experiencing presently.
Well before the coronavirus became a global emergency and the practice of physical distancing became the new normal, we had asked the incoming members of the International Masters for Health Leadership (IMHL), our health-care management program, to share stories about their experiences in the field.
An obstetrician told about the time when he was shuttling as a resident between the wards of different hospitals. He and his colleagues “loved working” in one of them; it was a “happy” place, thanks to a head nurse who cared. She was understanding, respectful of everyone, and intent on promoting collaboration between doctors and nurses. The place had soul.
Then she retired and was replaced by someone qualified in nursing with a master’s degree in management. Without “any conversation…she started questioning everything.” She was strict with the nurses, arriving early to check who came late, for example. Where there used to be chatting and laughing at the start of shifts, “it became normal for us to see one nurse crying” because of some comment by the new manager.
Morale plummeted and soon that spread to the physicians: “It took two to three months to destroy that amazing family [….] We used to compete to go to that hospital; [later] we didn’t want to go there anymore.” Yet, “the higher authority didn’t intervene or maybe was not aware” of what was going on.
Managing without soul has become an epidemic in societyHow often have you heard such a story, or had a similar experience? In the work that I do—studying management and organizations—I hear them often (during the week I wrote this, four times). And more than a few are about CEOs. Managing without soul has become an epidemic in society. Many managers these days seem to specialize in killing cultures, at the expense of human engagement.
Too many MBA programs teach this, although inadvertently. Out of these programs come graduates with a distorted impression of management: detached, generic, technocratic. They are educated but given no context, taught to believe they can manage anything, whereas, in fact, they have learned to manage nothing. Such technocratic detachment is bad enough—numbers, numbers, numbers. The worst of it is also mean-spirited, bullying people and playing them off against each other. One person, pushed around for years by a nasty boss, said, “It’s the little things that wear you down.”
These managers focus on themselves. You can tell them by their references to “my department” or “my hospital,” as if they own the place because they manage it. Some, of course, say “our department,” but you can easily tell whether they are sincere. And when they get to the top of some non-business organization, they prefer to be called “CEO,” as if they are managing a business. Please understand: Managing without soul is bad for business, too.
Why do we tolerate this? Why do we allow narcissists with credentials—posing as leaders—to bring down so many of our institutions?
Part of the problem is that people are generally selected for managerial positions by “superiors” (i.e. senior managers, boards of directors), who frequently don’t understand the damage caused by their decisions. And so we often get what have been called “kiss up and kick down” managers—able to impress “superiors” while denigrating “subordinates.”
A hotel with soul
Last year I was in England for meetings about our International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM).We stayed at one of those corporate hotels—I hated it from years ago, no spirit, no soul. I recalled the high turnover of staff, and the times they charged our Japanese participants $10 per minute for calls back home—minutes that a participant from British Telecom had estimated would cost the hotel pennies.
My daughter Lisa was also in England, so after the meetings we went travelling in the Lake District, a great place to hike. The IMPM was to take place a few months later in a hotel there that we hadn’t used before, so we volunteered to check it out.
I walked in and immediately fell in love with the place. Beautifully appointed, perfectly cared for, a genuinely attentive staff—this hotel was loaded with soul. I’ve been studying organizations for so long that I can often enter one and sense soul, or no soul, in an instant. I can feel the energy of the place, or the lethargy; the genuine smile instead of the grin from some “greeter”; honest concern instead of programmed “care.” (“We appreciate your business!” as you wait for someone to answer the phone. Translation: “Our time is more important than yours.”).
”What’s it mean to have soul?” Lisa asked. “You know it when you see it,” I replied. In every little corner. I asked a waiter about hiking trails. He didn’t know so he fetched the manager of the hotel to tell me. Soon he was there, in no rush to cut the conversation short. I chatted with a young woman at reception. “The throw pillows on the bed are really beautiful,” I said. “Yes,” she replied. “The owner cares for every detail—she picked those pillows herself.” “How long have you been here?” I asked. “Four years,” she said proudly, and then rattled off the tenures of the senior staff: the manager 14 years, the assistant manager 12 years, the head of sales a little less.
Most people—employees, customers, managers—want to care, given half a chanceWhy can’t all organizations be like this? Most people—employees, customers, managers—want to care, given half a chance. We human beings have souls, and so too can our hospitals and hotels. Why do we build so many great institutions only to let them wither under the control of people who should never have been allowed to manage anything? Souls need fixing all right, and so does a lot of managing.