6 tips for leading an effective nursing team

February 28, 2019

The stereotype seems almost comical today.

The stern, authoritative, absolutist nurse leader of yesterday. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At one time, this style of nurse leadership was commonplace. Bridget Roberts, DNP, RN, CNE, chair of doctoral nursing and interim associate dean for the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella University, remembers it well.

“When I first started as a nurse, the leadership was extremely authoritarian,” Roberts recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of room for new ideas. You did what you were told and had to be happy with the status quo. It wasn’t a good recipe for developing new talent or moving the profession forward at all.”

Poor Nurse Ratched wouldn’t do so well in today’s health care environment, Roberts says.

“The nursing profession has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades, particularly in how nurses lead their teams,” Roberts explains. “Today, nurse leaders depend on their staff and team to generate new ideas, innovate to solve problems, and bring evidence-based practice forward. We are better able to serve our patients and deliver a higher quality of care when nurse leaders truly engage with their teams to solicit their ideas. It’s truly a win-win.”

Sounds great, but easier said than done. To help nurse leaders avoid any lingering Nurse Ratched tendencies and lead their teams in an inclusive and collaborative manner, Roberts offers the following six tips for leading a high-performing nursing team.

1. Know thyself

Nurse leaders need to be reflective about their own leadership style. To start, build off your strengths and those unique qualities that you bring to the leadership table.

“The interesting thing about health care leadership is that it varies so much from leader to leader,” Roberts says. “The leadership qualities we bring to the table are very individualized and personal. That should be embraced. It’s important for every nurse leader to be introspective and ask, “Who am I as a leader?” Don’t try to change who you are, but rather emphasize and build off your qualities that inspire your team to achieve their best.”

2. Create a shared vision

The key word here is “shared.” When developing a vision with your team, be aware that it is not “your” vision to bestow upon your team. Present it as “our” vision, right from the start. 

“Involve your team from the get-go in developing the vision, objectives, and guiding principles for your team,” Roberts says. “Give them ownership and voice, and you are very likely to have a highly-engaged, high-performing group of nurses. The vision and how you are working toward it should be a topic of discussion in all meetings. It should be front of mind for all nurses and drive their day-to-day work. Giving them a sense of ownership is key to making the vision become a reality.”

3. Be emotionally aware

Roberts believes the best leaders are emotionally aware, both of themselves and of their teams. She explains that there are four tenets to emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness – Be aware and honest about your own limitations. With that awareness, you can leverage your team to fill any gaps and give them leadership opportunities.
  • Self-management – In addition to effective time management, the best leaders are capable of managing their emotions and reactions in sensitive situations. “You set the standards by how you react in times of crisis and confusion,” Roberts explains. “Your team will be looking at you and how you manage yourself during those times. Set a good example.”
  • Social awareness – Be aware of those around you and how they are feeling. What’s being said? What’s the body language? It’s about developing an intuitive sense if something seems off in a situation and knowing how to act. Don’t just ignore it.
  • Relationship management – It’s important that nurse leaders develop healthy relationships with their teams. “A leader can care and can be supportive,” Roberts encourages.

4. Be positive

This one is easy to appreciate for any nurse who has had an unsupportive, unempathetic leader. Be positive. It’s just that simple. Don’t be the grumpy, angry, intolerant nurse leader (e.g., Nurse Ratched).

“It’s so simple to me, but would you rather start your day with a boss who complains, or one who jumps in and says, ‘Let’s do this together?’” Roberts asks. “Yes, health care can be hard. We deal with a lot of life-and-death situations and emotions run high. But remaining positive and passionate about what we do is really important. It doesn’t mean you overlook issues or avoid conflict, but it’s how you lead during those tough times that makes a huge impact.”

5. Open lines of communication

The best nurse leaders maintain open lines of communication. It’s important that everyone on the team feels comfortable raising an issue or putting forward a new idea. It’s the nurse leader’s job to create an environment where there is no hesitation to do so.

“Involve your team in making decisions through open communication,” Roberts advises. “Listen. Ask. Then make good decisions. Even when your team members aren’t able to participate in decision-making, good communication about the rationale for a change can go a long way toward helping teammates move forward in a positive manner.” 

6. Trust to be trusted

None of the above will work without trust. But it’s important to remember that trust is a two-way street.

“Always assume positive intent; always do what is right, and you can’t go wrong,” Roberts says.  “Even if you don’t make the right decision, if your intent was positive, that’s what matters. That’s what earns your team’s respect and allegiance. Show that same courtesy to your team as well. Lastly, micromanagement is off the table. If you trust your team members and believe they act to do the right thing, let them do their job.”

Learn more about theDoctor of Nursing Practice programat Capella University.

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