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Investing in leaders to build a stronger, more resilient healthcare system

Coauthored by Milissa Eagle, MA, Director of Workforce Analytics.

Leaders play a pivotal role in driving and sustaining employee engagement and retention across the organization. But they’ve faced major headwinds in recent years. Prior to the pandemic, leaders’ engagement scores remained relatively stagnant. Then 2020 hit, and engagement plummeted across all roles, including healthcare leaders. Worse yet, among leaders, it continued to dip for three years in a row—down 3.7% during that time frame. While leaders remain among the most engaged employees, they’re one of two groups that still haven’t begun to reverse negative trends.

We analyzed data from 2.2 million employees to understand the state of the healthcare workforce today. Our report, “Employee experience in healthcare 2024,” explores industry trends and challenges around building a culture where all employees thrive. It drills into manager and leader data to decipher new and ongoing barriers to an optimal employee experience—as well as strategies for improvement.

While the data depicts many positive signs, it also shows us that obstacles to leader engagement still exist, and leader engagement must be made a priority. An investment in leaders is an investment in the enterprise—leaders are key to sustaining and scaling all efforts within an organization.

Why we need strong, supported leaders in healthcare

Leaders at all levels are essential to success in healthcare. Senior leaders help shape and communicate an organization’s strategy and values. They set the vision, commit it to action, and arm all leaders within an organization with the tools to be successful at the team level.

Mid-level and front-line leaders are necessary to bridge messages and actions between senior leadership and staff. They lead their teams through action planning, monitoring progress, and sharing results. And they help people connect—connect to each other, connect to the organization’s mission and vision, and connect to purpose—to create an exceptional employee experience for all. 

When healthcare leaders don’t feel supported, it can have an organization-wide domino effect—especially when it comes to things like employee engagement and retention. Leader behaviors, such as treating team members equally and with respect, genuinely caring about job satisfaction, and encouraging teamwork, are key drivers of employee retention. This highlights how essential a team’s direct leader is and that we must train and equip leaders to effectively support their teams. 

Employees who report weaker relationships with their leaders are 44% more likely to leave than those with strong relationships.

If we’re not investing in leader development and engagement, they won’t be able to show up the way we want them to for their teams and create an environment where teams can thrive.

5 strategies to support and empower healthcare leaders

Strong leadership is the cornerstone of a high-performing healthcare system. By implementing a few key strategies, we can empower leaders to navigate new and existing challenges, inspire their teams, and ultimately deliver exceptional patient care.

1. Make data easily accessible, digestible, and actionable

Looking across employee experience, safety, quality, patient experience, and other key healthcare data fuels smarter decision-making and streamlines improvement efforts.

Healthcare leaders have a lot of data at their fingertips, and it’s important to make it easy for them to understand and act on their data. Part of this is making sure it’s easy to understand data. Digital reporting tools make it simple for leaders to access and interpret vast quantities of data, then transparently report results out to drive better organization-wide decision-making.

The other part of this is training leaders to understand their data, how to track performance, and how to facilitate improvement initiatives with their teams. This empowers leaders to identify opportunities, prioritize areas for improvement, and share best practices with colleagues and experts within and outside of the organization.

2. Listen to leaders to unlock their insight

Healthcare leaders have key insights into organizational strategy, yet they also must stay grounded in front-line realities and challenges. This makes them invaluable sources of insight on how to improve and engage staff.

But connection and communication are essential for creating an effective feedback loop. Continuously listening to leader perspectives—their concerns as well as what’s working—taps into valuable insights to fuel real progress. One way organizations are listening to healthcare leaders when time is limited is by using technology like crowdsourcing to quickly generate ideas and solutions, and move to action.

>> Related read: From awareness to action: Transform your workforce through continuous listening

But listening alone isn’t enough. Like all employees, leaders also need to know that they’ve been heard, and that appropriate steps are being taken in response. Rounding on leaders is one way to connect and close the loop. Make rounding a priority and protected time, so leaders know it’s a primary focus.

3. Develop high reliability leader skills

High reliability organizations demonstrate consistent performance as intended, across the care continuum. Achieving high reliability requires focused improvement on both processes and behaviors. Investing in high reliability leadership skills training fosters an organization-wide leadership approach, driving behaviors that build higher-functioning teams.

To start developing high reliability leader skills, train leaders on:

  • Messaging the mission: Share stories to create connections, supporting psychological safety and speaking up.
  • Anticipation and learning: Hold tiered huddles to review past issues, identify new ones, and ensure solutions are implemented.
  • Reinforcing and building accountability: Conduct high reliability rounding, create a fair and just culture, and utilize a 5:1 feedback approach (i.e., provide 5x more positive feedback to constructive criticism to build trust). 

4. Invest in coaching

Coaching is a powerful investment of an organization’s time and resources. It strengthens desired leader behaviors, allowing them to model and teach these skills to their teams, creating a ripple effect of positive development.

But coaching does not come naturally to all leaders. Even seasoned leaders have opportunities to learn or reinforce what being a good “coach” for their team looks like. Press Ganey’s strategic consulting team uses a “collaborative coaching” framework to teach leaders skills on how to coach their teams. This approach uses a 4C framework: Connect first, check how things are going, collect any concerns, and commit to action. 

5. Remove frictions to let leaders lead

Streamlining leader experiences enables them to do their job to the best of their ability. Here's where the concept of "hassle factors" comes in. These are the bureaucratic hurdles and unnecessary administrative burdens that impede a leader's ability to dedicate themselves to the core functions of leadership.

For example, scheduling meetings during protected rounding time not only prevents leaders from connecting with their teams, but it sends a clear message: Engagement isn’t a priority. Leaders require an environment that fosters open communication, data-driven decision-making, and continuous learning, as well as access to the resources to support and direct their teams. Eliminating "hassle factors" and aligning actions with priorities empowers leadership teams, driving a more engaged and high-performing system.

6. Celebrate the wins—big and small

Recognizing and rewarding achievements is a powerful motivator, and leaders are no exception. Celebrating not just key milestones, but also smaller wins, strengthens positive behaviors and boosts leader engagement. Celebrating little victories along the way also opens additional opportunities for leaders to connect and share ideas, leveraging their collective wisdom to explore and spotlight best practices.

Empowered and engaged leaders are the cornerstone of a thriving healthcare system. Unlocking their full potential is key, because when we bring out the best in our leaders, they bring out the best in their teams.

To learn more about leader development, as well as the full findings of our employee experience study, download the report here.

To dive into your organization’s unique challenges, reach out, and we’ll get a meeting in the books.  

About the author

As Chief Clinical Officer, Jessica leads efforts to support organizations in increasing clinician engagement and improving patient care outcomes, particularly among physicians. Her areas of expertise include leadership development, clinical care redesign through outstanding teamwork, addressing clinician burnout, and advancing professional fulfillment. Jessica also leads Press Ganey’s Workforce Well-Being Collaborative, an initiative designed to help healthcare organizations identify the varied and disparate needs of their workforce and enable them to respond to their physical, emotional, financial, and operational needs in both the near term and beyond.

Profile Photo of Jessica C. Dudley, MD