Nurse leader, are you really listening to your staff?

Good advice can come from many different sources. According to my mother and a sage Greek philosopher, we should listen twice as much as we talk. As a nurse leader, you should do the same.

As a nurse leader, you should know what your staff thinks about their jobs. Do you know how they feel about their schedules, assignments, patient care and staffing issues, or what may be worrying them and holding them back from moving ahead on their education and careers? Do you make time for these things, or are you too busy running meetings, working on budgets, making announcements, and overseeing new programs, policies, and procedures that add up to a lot more time talking than listening?

These are questions that probably resonate with most of you, and I’m sure you’ve asked yourself similar ones in the past. Maybe they remind you of some good advice you got from your mother a long time ago: “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.” The actual quote, which long predates your mother’s version, came from the Greek philosopher Epictetus from all the way back in 55 A.D.:

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Now, more than 2,000 years later it’s still a quote that leaders should consider.

A little quiz for every nurse leader

Leadership isn’t easy, especially in nursing. Its demands can be overwhelming, and at times seem almost insurmountable. Each nurse leader has many responsibilities, and to accomplish everything she or he must constantly work on their skills —important among them — listening.

Listening is necessary to good leadership; hearing is crucial to it. The two go hand in hand.

You can’t fix things you don’t know about. You can’t understand what staff is going through if you don’t ask them. And you’ll never know who’s angry, hurt or worried — or what’s really happening on the unit or in the department — if you don’t listen and really hear them.

Here are a few questions to help you assess how you’re doing with the talking-to-listening ratio Epictetus and your mom suggested:

  • Do I know how much my staff knows about the impact of budgetary constraints on patient care ratios, and do I give them opportunities to ask questions and get answers?
  • Do I let staff know how to get their voices heard?
  • Do I share the “why” of organizational decisions and plans?
  • Do let them know I always “go to bat” for them and advocate for them with administration on staffing, scheduling, overtime and work-life balance issues?
  • Do I place importance on staff satisfaction and get input from them on how patient acuity, ratios and mix, overtime, scheduling and workload are affecting unit morale and performance?
  • Does my staff feel appreciated? Is our unit environment a positive one? Does thanking and recognizing staff go beyond employee award programs and Nurses Week celebrations?
  • Do I periodically involve members of the C-suite in staff meetings so my staff can be heard? Do I invite our CEO, COO, or CNO to accompany me on unit rounds?
  • Do I use social media nursing sites and chat rooms to learn what staff is feeling and what they’re saying about work? Most important, do I address these topics with staff?
  • Do I follow up and follow through when a staff member comes to me with a problem? After meetings with staff, do I get back to them so they know they were really heard?

2020 is a time for action

It has always been my belief people come to work each day to do good. Looking back on all the wonderful staff I’ve worked with over the years as a nurse leader, I can’t believe otherwise. They work hard and want to make a meaningful contribution, but they also want to be recognized, appreciated and, yes, heard. And they deserve to be.

Nurse leaders, it’s early in this new year and decade, and a great time to work on our listening skills. There are countless articles and books on the subject in and outside nursing because leaders everywhere endorse its importance.

Search the topic of listening better, and the articles will come flooding in. Tell staff you’re going to make listening and hearing what they have to say a priority. Set aside time at meetings to listen: “Now it’s your turn; I’ll just listen.”

Be the nurse leader who creates a non-judgmental atmosphere and asks for questions and comments. Take notes, look for solutions, and get back to them. Tell them you understand a good nurse leader need to be good listeners, and you’re going to listen — and not just at meetings.

Make it known you’re available to listen when they need to be heard — and then make sure you are.

Is it going to be easy? Maybe not. But showing your staff that you prioritize listening to them will make a difference. They will benefit and so will you. Ernest Hemingway once said, I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Refuse to be “most people.”


Take these courses to learn more about leadership:

Developing Your Leadership Potential
(6.8 contact hrs)
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute of Medicine made recommendations to transform the nursing profession in their report “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” A key message from the report is the recommendation that nurses be full partners together with physicians and other healthcare professionals in redesigning the country’s healthcare system. This activity will provide practical strategies to help you develop your personal plan for developing your leadership potential regardless of your chosen career path.

Transformational Leadership
(1 contact hr)
Transformational leadership has been shown to be particularly effective in turbulent and uncertain environments, such as those found in today’s healthcare organizations. This module explains what transformational leadership is, why transformational leadership is a key part of Magnet nursing organizations, and how it can promote work satisfaction among nurses and improve care for patients.

Spread Your Wings
(1 contact hr)
In every setting and in every role, nurses can provide leadership for the changes needed to improve healthcare for Americans. This course provides an overview about trends in the healthcare industry, discusses skills nurses can learn to influence change, and challenges every nurse to become a strong leader and a supportive follower.

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