In 2008, I was in a role where my one and only job was to address patient complaints. Every day I circulated the hospital talking to patients and their families, a task that allowed them to express their concerns in a safe space. One morning, I checked in on a patient whose first words to me were, “Cheri, do you like your job?” and this stunned me. I had never really thought about this, and now, in this moment, I was forced to answer. At the time I did, I liked my job, but as we wrapped up the conversation I was left with a thought that sat with me for the next few days.
I returned to her a few days later to ask her why she felt compelled to ask me this question. I was concerned that I had done something that might have made her feel uncomfortable. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one she asked - she asked everyone who went to her room. I felt compelled to ask her why she asked me this, her response was, “Well Cheri, sometimes the people who take care of me make me feel like they are here just to collect a paycheck. It’s like they are here to do time.”
I wasn’t surprised by what she said, but I was surprised by her courage to say something about it. Being the person addressing complaints on the daily I knew this was happening, but I didn’t necessarily know what I could do about it. It was this very interaction that inspired me to unpack what it really means to create a positive patient experience and to restore the feeling of fulfillment in the industry of helping people.
We should feel good when we help people - it’s a part of our biology. Through hundreds of interviews and focus groups, I learned about the reality of losing the sense of purpose and fulfillment in the face of demanding regulatory policies, patients and leaders. I also realized that it does not have to be this way. The patient experience is about taking care of patients and it’s also about taking care of the people who take care of them.
I believe that the environments in which we work in matter, and what is important to our leaders matter. Here is my perspective on what should be considered if you want to lead a culture of empathy, compassion and connection:
- If you want the employees to treat customers, patients and each other with compassion, leaders have to do this too. Traditional customer service programs will tell people how to act, what to say and why they should do things. If you really take a moment to listen to their perspective on what service means, you’ll be amazed by their passion around helping people. If you want employees to listen carefully, treat patients and customers with courtesy and respect, explain things in a way that they can understand – you, as their leader, should do the same.
Most people’s first reaction to this comment is, “I already do that.” Although your reflection is important it doesn’t matter unless the receiver of your behavior feels that same way too. In healthcare, thousands of patients are telling healthcare organizations that they aren’t consistently listening carefully, communicating well, or treating patients with courtesy and respect. When hospitals and medical groups saw their scores for the first time, most organizations were in shock and almost always denied that the data was true or questioned that the survey questions were valid measures. If leaders want the employees to develop their skills for expressing compassion, or “good service”, imagine how impactful leaders could be if they took take those same skills and apply them to their interactions with their employees. With this said, this means that the following also applies to you and your development as well.
- Empower employees with social skills and help them see how it applies in their everyday interactions with people. We can define empathy and compassion all day and we can explain what it is and the steps to take when applying empathy to patients or customers but, to be completely honest, this really isn’t all that inspiring. The patient experience is a social relationship. Social skills for interacting with all people like expressing compassion toward someone who is not compassionate toward you or empathy for others at work or in your personal life are important to these interactions. People learn the best when they can relate to the skills you want them to practice. If you can get them to think about how these skills play out to make them a better person in their personal and professional lives, your training will be so much more than a boring customer service class. Use stories and examples from the professional world and personal life. If these are skills that teach them expressions of kindness and they see how it applies to their personal lives, when they are faced with the service situation where it applies, they will be confident in their ability to use it because they’ve seen it play out in other aspects of their lives.
- Teach employees how to manage their own emotions. Creating a positive experience for anyone – patients, customers, our spouse, our children, our friends, etc. really starts with our own internal experience. If you are stressed or in a depressed mood, and you are told to smile and be happy or friendly, think about the energy that it would require of you. Think about how authentic or genuine your interactions may or may not be. The reality is that people have other aspects of their lives that may sometimes interfere with their mood, their inspiration, and their ability to operate from a genuinely compassionate place. To give you a perspective on this reality, over the last decade the number of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications prescribed to Americans have skyrocketed by 400%! Empowering people with the knowledge around vulnerability, shame and happiness will not only help people understand themselves on a deeper emotional level, but they will also understand others on a deeper emotional level. In the age of demanding good service, a part of that plan has to be about deepening the understanding of ourselves so that we can easily recognize important emotions in others and express compassion in the most appropriate way.
- Establish a common language to solidify the message of the culture. Every group, every family, every organization has values and beliefs that bring them together. The key is to document and highlight the language around it so that everyone can understand one another and moreover understand expectations for the experience they create for others. The advantage of doing this is that you now have a platform that brings people on the same human level. Imagine your highest level executives and your most frontline employees speaking the same language about how the patient/customer experience is approached – where they share stories acknowledging the ability to grow and learn, their experiences and challenges with practicing empathy and the effort required to extend compassion to others. If you can get the people within the organization on the same page – all levels, all departments, all roles, you’ve build a community of people who share the same understanding of what it means to help people.
When we feel helped, treated with courtesy and respect, listened to, and responded to in a way that is patient and understanding we consider this a positive experience. Technology, broken processes, and hostile work environments definitely challenge our ability to do this, but if we each take personal responsibility for the way in which we contribute to these environments, we can together see the potential in our ability to create a world where this is possible.
My point is that telling people what to do, how to do it and why they should it isn’t going to be enough to inspire meaning and purpose to create compassionate experiences. Leaders need to do exactly what is expected of employees like listen carefully, treat them with courtesy and respect, give a warm greeting and welcoming remark, etc. If they can experience for themselves what the experience should be, they will be more likely to extend that to their patients and customers.
The patient and customer experience is a social relationship, which means that we need to deepen our understanding of our social nature so that we can better empathize and connect with people. And if we want to better understand others and their emotions, we have to first understand our emotions within ourselves. Finally, people are more likely to deepen their learning and the application of their learning when they are amongst others who are making the same effort - having a common language, a common understanding and common approach brings people together for the same collective effort to make an impact on the organization and beyond.
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