Navigating Change as a Physician Leader

As a practice leader, you can have a significant impact on how well your employees adapt to changes at your practice. Here are some guidelines to help.

One of the most challenging aspects of medical practice, and often the one the physician is least prepared for, is that of being a leader. As the leader of your practice, not only are you responsible for ensuring optimal patient care, but you are also responsible for creating a work environment that brings out the best in employees so that they can effectively handle all aspects of the practice. The physician leader sets the tone of the practice and determines what behaviors are encouraged and which ones are discouraged. This serves to create a practice "culture," or what some may refer to as the working environment. The culture, in turn, determines whether employees feel committed and engaged with their work, how they interact with each other and with the physician, and how they treat patients. The ideal culture is one in which employees thrive.

Given the nature of medical practices, the ongoing shifts in the healthcare industry, and the distinct personalities of each patient, healthcare providers must learn to deal with continual change and unpredictability. As a physician leader, you can have a significant impact on how well your employees adjust and adapt to changes within the practice. Understand that change of any kind naturally poses some degree of threat for people. It disrupts routines, is unpredictable, and brings with it uncertainty. And when people are in a state of threat, their ability to think, plan, organize, collaborate, and appreciate differing perspectives begins to decline. The more you can do to lessen the threat, the better.

Here are some "thriving with change" guidelines that will pave the way toward smooth transitions, be they large or small, short-term or ongoing:

1. Mitigate threat

Change causes threat because it brings with it uncertainty and inconsistencies. Mitigate the threat by providing timely and relevant communication: what to expect, why change is happening, and what is the intended or predicted outcome. When changes are afoot, staff typically focus on what it means for them (e.g., their jobs, their compensation, their responsibilities, etc.). Make sure you address this in your communication.

2. Promote understanding

If staff don't understand what is happening or why, they feel a greater sense of threat. Deliver a compelling message - the more people understand the why of the change(s), the more likely they will buy in. You want to find your change "champions" - the people that will help make the transition as smoothly as possible and deliver a positive message to others.

3. Seek input

Threat is lessened when people feel they have some degree of control. Seek input - help your staff feel that they are part of the solution rather than become focused on the negative effects of change. Learn their perspective, get their ideas about how to transition most effectively, and ask how they are responding.

4. Acknowledge discomfort

Change creates stress. Recognize that people respond to change in many different ways. Pay attention to how your staff are coping. Ask them how they are managing with the change. Knowing that someone cares actually goes a long ways toward lessening the negative effects of change.

5. Present choices

Change can create a perceived lack of autonomy. Look for opportunities to give your staff choices whenever possible. Change can cause people to feel a sense of powerlessness or loss of control. Having options creates a renewed sense of autonomy.

6. Seek fairness

One of the biggest triggers of social threat for people is perceived unfairness. It actually stimulates the disgust center of the brain. Ensure that things are as fair as possible. For example, when it comes to distribution of workload that is related to the change, spread it out so everyone carries some of the burden.

7. Be transparent

And finally, change can create an atmosphere of distrust. You can mitigate this effect by making sure that you do what you say you are going to do, and that you will do whatever you can to avoid any surprises as it relates to the changes.

Follow these guidelines and you will have a staff that is more likely to be engaged, committed, and supportive of the transitions that lie ahead.

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