Friday, August 24, 2007

Actually you don’t know all the answers

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind” - William James 1842 - 1910

At one time I was a manager in a hospital of 140 beds for people with Learning Difficulties. Part of my duties included responsibility for the process of reporting building maintenance problems. For instance if the tap in the patients bathroom was leaking the nursing staff had to write in their ward repair book the nature of the problem and deliver that piece of paper to the office which I was in charge of. From there the office staff would get in touch with building maintenance department to arrange for the repair to be scheduled. This system had been running for many years in the hospital and to all involved it seemed to work reasonably well. We were all happy in our ‘comfort blanket’ and all in the garden seemed rosy. Nothing it seemed could disrupt this tranquility. I feel you may sense a touch of irony in my words.

One morning I remember a young male nurse approaching me with some information that almost caused anarchy!

He said there had been a maintenance problem on one of the Wards and he had told the nurses to send the repair request to the maintenance department direct rather then send it via the Admin office. He said, very innocently, that he was telling me this for my information only because he understood the system had been established a long time. He felt the new arrangements would be better because it would save time and be more efficient.

I still feel embarrassment and guilt today about my reaction then (although the incident was over 22 years ago)

That day I had feelings of resentment and I remember very well even the thoughts that were in my head;

- How dare this ‘upstart’ change the system without reference to anyone?
- Who is he anyway to decide this is a more efficient system?
- That task is the job of my staff and I will not accept the change – I will do all I can to prevent it being introduced

When I look back now it seems so pathetic that I should resist the change this young man was proposing and I can see very clearly now how much more efficient the new system would be.

What I was doing was resisting change and I didn’t even recognise it. I was not trying to see the change as an improvement. I had made up my mind emotionally that this youngster was treading on my territory. This was a turf war and there is no way I was going to lose this one.

Even though my first reaction was one of resistance I slowly came round to seeing that in fact his idea was a huge improvement to the old system and I had no right whatsoever to oppose it.

We did change the system for that Ward...and of course once we saw it worked so much more efficiently we introduced the new system across all the Wards in the hospital. Everybody won.

When I looked at the system objectively, ignoring the history and the emotional involvement I was able to quickly recognise that I was pointlessly standing in the way of a change that was for the better.

That young Nurse and I remained good friends for many years and we occasionally shared our experiences as we moved on to bigger but not necessarily better things in our respective careers. We all learn from colleagues and peers and that episode taught me a lot.

Leadership Lesson - Actually Mr (or Mrs) leader you don’t know all the answers. You can always learn and beware especially of those old well established systems that everyone is comfortable with – don’t protect them ‘blindly.’

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