10 Common Mistakes that Nurse Leaders Make |

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Nurse Leaders It is always interesting to ask nurse leaders about the mistakes that they have made in their roles.  Most leadership mistakes are not big failures, but smaller mistakes that they often repeated early in their careers.  Experience is a good teacher but as one seasoned leader laughingly told me, “to be honest, I was not a quick learner early in my career….it seemed that I had to learn everything the hard way.  I still make mistakes today, but not the same ones that I used to make”. 

Making mistakes is part of being a leader according to Richard Hader, the editor of Nursing Management.  He points out that leadership is a daunting task, and the behavior of leaders is closely scrutinized.  We should not only learn from our own mistakes but can also learn from the experiences of other nurse leaders.  I have compiled ten of the most common mistakes that nurse managers have discussed with me.

The Top Ten List

1.  Failing to deal with performance problems early enough

This is probably the single most common mistake that nurse leaders make especially early in their career.  They wait too long to take action on poor performers, and fail to hold them accountable for their behavior.  Often, poor performers are difficult to deal with.  The leader does not want to face the confrontation that a counseling will bring or keeps hoping the employee will change.

2.  Avoiding a conflict that later escalated

Conflict management is a big challenge for many nurse leaders.  They often avoid the conflict, hoping it will just go away.  That rarely happens and the conflicts escalates out of control.  In an earlier post, I discussed carefronting as a different way to think about and approach these conflicts.

3.  Selecting a staff member that was not a good fit for the unit out of desperation

In today’s healthcare workplace, nurse leaders are usually able to be more selective about the staff who offered positions on a unit.  During times of nursing shortages (and we will have another by the end of the decade), this dynamic changes, and nurse leaders are often confronted with too few applicants for their positions.  Often against their better judgement and in desperation, the leader will select an applicant despite serious misgivings about a goodness of fit for the unit.  These selections rarely work out, and nurse leaders come to regret their mistake.

4.  Trying to be liked by everyone   

As a nurse leader, your relationship with your staff changes.  You can’t be their best friend.  It is important to strike the right balance but to also realize that leading change usually means ruffling someone’s feathers. Being a leader means requires that you need to develop a thick skin, and be able to take the heat without taking it personally.  This does get easier with time.

5.  Taking action without knowing the whole story

New leader often want to be seen as being action oriented in their positions.  You can pay a heavy price in leadership if you act too quickly on limited information.  Hearing all sides to the story is important.  When staff come in to present problems with another staff member or department, it is important to carefully listen.  But before you formulate an opinion about what happened and who may be at fault – get all sides to the story.  You may end up being quite surprised as situations usually end up being much more complex and nuanced, than the picture painted when they are first presented.

6.  Losing an excellent staff member without really finding out why

It can be very difficult to lose valued staff members.  Nurse leaders often attribute the loss to the individual moving on to other career opportunities.  That may be true but maybe not.  There may be problems or challenges on the unit that would be valuable feedback.  As an example, the research literature on bullying tells us that environments where this occurs have retention problems. Most nurses report that they did not discuss the situation with their manager.

7.  Acting in anger over a situation and later regretting it

Anger is a powerful emotion and a career derailer as I discussed in a previous blog.   A leader’s immediate reaction to an explosive situation is usually emotion laden.  As a wise mentor once told me, “when I feel this way – I tell myself to calm down – go home and think about it carefully before saying anything.”  This is when a trusted mentor to talk through the situation with can be very helpful.

8.  Failing to spend enough time developing relationships with staff and colleagues

Nurse leaders have very busy roles.  It is easy to get so wrapped up in your own workload that you don’t make yourself available to your team or establish relationships with colleagues.  Make it a priority to get out of your office each day to make rounds, talk with staff and meet with colleagues.  Leadership can be very isolating, but often leaders isolate themselves.

9.  Being misunderstood because communication was not carefully worded

Words have power and in leadership, people do listen carefully to the words that we use.  A careless response to a question can easily circulate quickly among staff, and not convey the meaning that the leader intended.  In difficult situations, it is even more important to carefully think through the language that you are using.

10. Not being open to feedback

Effective nurse leaders make sure they listen actively to their employees and their peers.  This means being open to feedback that may not always be positive.  You may not always agree with the perspective offered, but you need to respect that it is how others may view you.  If you are open to feedback, your staff will be more honest and open with you to help you succeed.

As a nurse leader, you will make mistakes.  In research that I have conducted with leaders, they indicate that the key is having the insight to be able to look at your mistakes, acknowledge them and learn from them.  There is nothing that nursing staff appreciate more than a leader who is able to confidently say “I was wrong.”   


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