Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.
Why are physician leaders hesitant to do this?
Feelings are highly contagious. When one of your colleagues is angry and spraying invective in every direction, that arousal will be hard to tolerate. Just like everyone else, you would prefer to avoid such unpleasantness. The last thing you will want to do is fight that fire. You know you may get burned in the process. Your unreasonable colleague will not welcome your efforts to manage her feelings—unless you unconditionally accept her behavior as justified. That is not likely to happen. If people managed their own feelings appropriately there would be no need for leaders to manage them.
What is the case for doing it anyway?
Emotional outbursts, particularly by people in power, cause real problems in the workplace. Disruptive behavior by physicians is unfortunately common, and the victims expect physician leaders to step up and deal with it. When leaders do their jobs everyone calms down, confident that such outbursts will not be allowed to disrupt their lives forever. When leaders cower in the face of unpleasant feelings and fail to manage them, the best people start to wonder whether they should look for a better place to work—a place where physician leaders do their jobs. However unpleasant the task of managing others behavior, you cannot permit this to happen.
How can you do it?
1. Contain the outburst if possible. If you are present or can respond immediately, take the bad actor somewhere private. Isolate the contagion and minimize the emotional damage by moving the erupting colleague to your office or someplace else off stage.
2. Accept everyone’s feelings. This is not the same as approving their behavior. We all have feelings and we are entitled to them. We are not entitled to behave disruptively because of them.
3. Begin a dispassionate investigation. Talk to everyone who personally saw what happened. Ask them to document what they observed. If only two parties were involved, interview them individually.
4. Do not take a position prematurely. Complainers can be very convincing. When you talk with other players, you will usually discover that others have very different perceptions about what happened, how the participants behaved and whether their behavior was professional.
5. Do something. Document your findings. Take a position. Identify the behaviors that were out of line while suggesting more appropriate ways to manage such strong feelings in the future.
How have you observed physician leaders manage others’ feelings effectively?