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Want Wildly Engaged Clinicians? Stop Trying to Make Them Happy!

Nurses and doctors can be happy with their job but care less about their work.

In the wake of the unprecedented need to make improvements in the performance of healthcare organizations, leaders are feverishly trying to make their clinicians happier, so they will be more willing to fully engage in work initiatives.

While that may be a nice thing to do, throwing a party won’t get disengaged clinicians to engage.

Untangle the confusion between clinician happiness and engagement

There’s a lot of confusion between the concepts of worker satisfaction and worker engagement. And, if you want to impact either one it’s important to understand their differences.

Engagement is tied to the motivation to apply skills and talents toward doing great work. Whereas satisfaction and happiness are linked to fleeting feelings of pleasure.

For example, a nurse can be happy or satisfied with his pay and shift hours, yet not want to expend effort in the work itself.

Engagement is much more robust for organizations because the engaged nurse or doctor cares about impact and contribution toward organizational goals and will use discretionary effort to go above and beyond the minimum expected requirements.

That’s not to say that satisfaction and happiness don’t have their place – studies show they will keep workers from seeking other employers. We just need to be clear about the distinctions between happiness and engagement so we can choose our actions intentionally, depending on which results we are seeking.

Parties and pay don’t play the long-game of engagement

Plans to increase worker engagement often include pay bonuses and celebration parties. While these efforts are very much appreciated they won’t impact motivation to do great work.

One of the most surprising things research shows on worker engagement is that it’s not associated with any objective feature of an organization, like upgraded facilities, certain types of equipment or tools, specific practices, skill development programs, or even pay.

I’ve seen hospitals in the poorest areas with minimal resources have highly engaged doctors and nurses, and I’ve also seen hospitals with plenty of resources, with low morale, and very little engagement.

Instead, engagement is associated with the subjective perceptions workers have regarding their relationship with their organization, and how supported they feel in fulfilling their own motivations.

For clinicians, prominent motivations are autonomy, mastery and purpose. The intrinsic motivations described by Abraham Maslow that people care about after their basic needs are met.

Perception is everything in clinician engagement

The great thing about engagement being tied to subjective perception is that since clinical leaders are the face of their organizations clinician engagement is largely in their control.

For wildly engaged clinicians:

  • clinicians have to BELIEVE they are supported,
  • they have to BELIEVE they are psychologically safe (i.e., feel free to express themselves without fear of being judged, dismissed, or criticized), and
  • they have to BELIEVE they have what they need to be successful (ties to their motivations)

Bottom line: as leaders, you have a substantial influence on the perception of the relationship clinicians have with you and the organization. Address perceptions and enjoy an engaged team.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article where I will discuss a specific strategy to influence your clinicians’ perceptions.

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