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As a critical care nurse, I enjoyed direct patient care and prided myself on my nursing skills and the rapport I had with patients, my colleagues, and the rest of the medical team.
I eagerly said yes when I was given the opportunity to act as team leader and coordinate the unit’s needs for the shift. When an opening came up for the position of head nurse, I applied. I was thrilled when I was told I was the successful applicant.
But my excitement dwindled away once I started in my new role.
I was shocked at the difference in how I was treated by my colleagues. I went from being one of the team, where we laughed, worked together, and had each others’ backs, to feeling excluded and alone. I rarely ate lunch with them because I was at meetings or on a different schedule for breaks. I was seldom included in their afterwork social events. At times, I wondered about their hesitancy to follow my directions. Didn’t they respect me as their new leader?
What had happened? Was it something I had done to alienate my workmates? I was unprepared for this shift in how I would be treated after I moved up to a formal leadership role.
As I reflect on this experience, I am proud of the actions I took to adjust to my new position. I also see how much more could have been done to smooth this transition for me and the nurses I was leading.
The following points outline what I learned from this experience. Perhaps you will be encouraged and gain some insight for your own journey in the workplace.
1. Clarify your expectations of the new role.
I was excited to take on a new challenge. I enjoyed being in charge and I wanted to be a successful leader. I would be competent, engaging, flexible, and fun to work with. I thought I would be accepted and respected right from the start. People would be thrilled to work with me as their head nurse! As I admitted these hopes to myself, I realized that my expectations were unrealistic. The next step was to look at what was really happening.
2. Assess the reality of the situation.
It didn’t take long before I realized that things were going differently than I had thought they would. I tried to relate to my colleagues as friends, which led to them ignoring my directions or undermining my goals for the unit. I knew something had to change if I wanted to continue in this leadership role.
3. Ask for help from other leaders or a coach.
I booked a meeting with the former leader of the unit and brought my specific questions to the table. I now had a better idea of what I needed to know. Before my new job began, I was at that place of “not knowing what I did not know.” I was willing to be coached, and as we met regularly to discuss the principles of leadership, I gained clarity and confidence.
4. Be willing to have the courageous conversations.
There were two other nurses who had applied for the position I was now in. They were more experienced clinically than I was, and I knew they were disappointed that I was the successful applicant. I met with each of them individually, and described my desire to be in partnership with them. I told them I valued their expertise and I counted on them for their knowledge. I also clarified that I expected them to respect me as the head nurse and to support me in my role.
The interaction with each one was awkward at first, and they were surprised at my initiative in calling such a meeting. As it turned out, they thanked me for the chance to “clear the air” and they agreed to work together with me for the good of the unit.
5. Practice setting clear boundaries.
A true leader values themselves. I learned that by saying what I wanted in a calm and clear manner, I was demonstrating that I placed my self-worth ahead of my desire to be liked. I could say no even if it meant my colleagues might not like it.
6. Be clear what your role is, and communicate that to the team.
As I organized staffing and vacation days, there were times when nurses were upset when I chose to say no to a request for days off. I reminded them that my job was to provide safe patient care, which meant a certain number of staff were required each shift. I focused on my role rather than absorbing the anger of the nurses. A leader who is calm and clear earns the respect of a team, rather than one who gets angry and defensive.
7. Place your job in perspective.
Many challenging situations arose during my time in this role. Rather than blaming others or myself, I stood back and looked at the big picture. I realized that I was part of a larger system that often created tension and stumbling blocks to clear communication and partnership. I focused on taking time to play and rest after work as well. Walking outdoors for an hour after work helped me to debrief and decompress before I got home. By releasing the stress of my day, I had energy to interact with my family with kindness and love.
Even though my experience dates back 30 years, I believe that the principles offered here are still relevant for aspiring leaders. The trajectory of promotion holds a mix of adventure and challenge. It is complicated when a person moves up from a staff position to one of being the “boss.” I trust that my story, and the tools I used to navigate this path, will be of service to those of you contemplating a move such as this.
All the best to you as you set realistic expectations and clarify your role. Set those boundaries, see yourself as worthy of being respected, and be willing to ask for help. Have fun using your gifts in the world of leadership!