Relational Leadership in Healthcare: Strengthening Connections, Shifting Culture
Transformative. That’s a word we frequently hear from those who participate in Relational Leadership programs and workshops. This is the first in a series of interviews with those who have experienced Relational Leadership, where we learn more about how it has impacted them and their work. The series explores the foundational power of relationships and human connection as driving forces of better healthcare.
We spoke with Kimberley R. Nichols, MD, FASA, about her experience and ongoing involvement with the Relational Leadership Institute at her institution (RL @Carolina). Dr. Nichols is Senior Associate Dean of Medical Student Education, a practicing anesthesiologist, author, speaker, and relational leader.
Initially, what felt compelling about Relational Leadership?
One of my favorite takeaways from Relational Leadership, and this is true from the very beginning when I first participated in RL @Carolina, is the idea that a title is not what makes you a leader. That has stayed with me throughout my professional journey. Truthfully, it is a lesson I think about in other aspects of my life.
By engaging relationally with others about their passions and their interests, we help them unlock leadership potential they might not have known they have.
In Relational Leadership, we talk about Big-L-Leaders, those with the titles and hierarchical positions within an organization, and little-l-leaders, everyone else. Little-l-leaders have leadership capabilities regardless of their professional roles. I have always appreciated that Relational Leadership focuses on leading from where you are — be it from a Big-L or little-l role — bolstered by the power and purpose of relationships.
By engaging relationally with others about their passions and their interests, we help them unlock leadership potential they might not have known they have. We allow them to flourish. What I love about these relational tools, when they are used intentionally, is that they can help anyone be a leader.
Where and how do you use Relational Leadership practices in your daily life?
Relational Leadership training is specifically designed for immediate application of the skills after training. Ultimately, participants applying what we teach is what will transform the culture of healthcare. Personally, a few examples come to mind.
Being intentional about approaching my team relationally — this is how I have helped shift the environment from a team that works for me, to a team that works together.
I recently joined a professional team that had experienced a lot of attrition during the last 18 months, an all-too-common situation in healthcare today. And whenever there is a lot of turnover, building relationships is going to be important, a critical practice. Since I joined this team, I have been intentional in getting to know everyone, listening to their stories, being curious, and asking questions.
Through the Relational Leadership practice of one-to-one meetings, I learned to be intentional and curious not just about team members’ roles but where they are from, and their interests both within the work context and beyond. I was especially mindful in doing this with staff that I had heard were feeling left out prior to my joining the team. We have also started having monthly events that are not solely business focused, which is a new practice for us. Being intentional about approaching my team relationally — this is how I have helped shift the environment from a team that works for me, to a team that works together.
I also use Relational Leadership practices in the classroom. I have taught a course called “Patient Centered Care,” and since learning and training others in Relational Leadership, my classroom management has changed. I have become intentional about making the learning environment one where the students get to know each other, work together, and actually see other students as their team. That core element of Relational Leadership – how to connect and engage a team – changed the way I think about teaching the course. As a result, I am still in touch with many learners from the past several years because of how we all experienced the team element within the classroom.
Where do you think Relational Leadership fits in changing the culture of healthcare and professional spaces in general?
This is a big and important question.
I believe that all culture change happens because of relationships. Since COVID, we have all re-thought and re-structured our priorities in terms of our shared expectations about how people should be treated in workplaces and learning spaces. But how we communicate those expectations, or truly see that our needs are implemented into practice, requires intentional relational engagement. That is a role I see for Relational Leadership.
Relational Leadership has made me a better educator, healthcare provider, and person. Shifting how individuals engage with others, shifts the culture of how we work together.
There is an additional factor that resulted from the pandemic. We, and I very much include myself in this, have lost some of our interpersonal skills during the past three years, because we did not have to engage directly with one another for a long period of remote work.
So, two realities exist simultaneously.
First, we are in a moment that requires that we get curious about the lives of those we work with or learn with – their hopes, needs, and challenges. And the practices needed to do that very necessary work are not ones that we have been doing for the past three years. Again, this is where Relational Leadership can help.
To state it plainly: Relational Leadership has made me a better educator, healthcare provider, and person. Shifting how individuals engage with others, shifts the culture of how we work together.
Hear more from Dr. Nichols on the transformative power of Relational Leadership. Watch the full video.
Kimberley Nichols, MD, shares how Relational Leadership has transformed her, as an educator, clinician, and leader.
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Student Action Network Participant
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Sarah Smithson, MD, MPH
Assistant Dean for Clinical Education University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
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Katie Gradick, MD, MHS
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“Relational skills are particularly important right now because they’re rooted in people, with the fundamental assumption that we are good and have common values. If I can approach with unconditional positive regard and build in psychological safety, who knows what we can accomplish, despite the chaos around us.”
Lexy Kliewer, LCSW
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Krisda Chaiyachati, MD, MPH, MSHP
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Matt Lewis, PhD
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Peter Meyers, MD, MPH
Family Physician, Minnesota Community Care
“Over 100 members of the UNC community have participated in our Relational Leadership Institutes… one word stands out for me in our evaluations — regardless of whether cohorts met in person or via Zoom — and that word is transformative."
Josh Hinson, MSW, LCSW
Assistant Professor University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work
"This year, there's been so much change with COVID, with work, with everything. But I feel like the PCP Student Action Network has been that constant that I could always just count on. And my favorite part is that no matter how stressful work was, no matter how stressful the year was, whenever it came time for a PCP call or any PCP anything, it's always something that I look forward to."
Student Action Network Coach
“So far, my experience in this Relational Leadership course has been THE highlight of my leadership journey. This program exceeded my expectations. I have been sharing the content with my colleagues who are also inspired by it. Thank you for making the world a better place one Relational Leadership course at a time.”
Relational Leadership for Clinician Leadership Program Participant
"The leadership skills, relationships, and perspective I have gained through my involvement in Intend Health have shaped the clinician, educator, and leader I am today."
Kyle Turner, PharmD
University of Utah
"Thank you for inspiring a generation of future docs to become primary care physicians. I definitely felt like I had a community during medical school."
Family Medicine Resident, UC Davis San Joaquin General Hospital
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