With Phyllis Quinlan
“Creating and Sustaining Healthy Work Environments”
Phyllis is the founder of MFW Consultants, where she trains healthcare organizations and their staff on how to create healthy work environments during Covid and beyond. Phyllis is a practicing legal nurse consultant, a conference speaker, and author of three books, with her latest entitled “Bringing Shadow Behavior Into the Light of Day: Understanding and Effectively Managing Bullying and Incivility in Healthcare”. In this episode, she shares some advice on what people can do to help create healthy work environments and minimize negative engagements.
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Highlights from Episode 134: “Creating and Sustaining Healthy Work Environments”
Tell us a little about yourself and how you transitioned from your former career, your medical career to becoming a life coach and author, and legal nurse consultant, among many of the hats that you wear.
I am a nurse, I’m a nurse for 43 years and prior to that, I was a psychiatric social worker for a short period of time. And in my nursing career, I was a clinician mostly in critical care emergency trauma and I was also in education and, of course, administration. I gravitated more to the education piece of it once I started to move away from the bedside.
When you’re involved in education, people come and talk to you more than when you’re involved in administration because you’re not so much involved with crime and punishment. So, people expect you to have more of an empathetic listening ear, not judgmental, all of that. My coaching career mostly organically just came out of that. I decided that I would like to venture into becoming a nurse entrepreneur back in 1994 when I started my company and I had an opportunity to capitalize on the managed care movement here in the States that was going on.
We had lots and lots of money either from the unions or from the local government and we didn’t have that many people to do the training. I saw an opportunity and started my company with that. And over the last 25+ years, the company has naturally grown. I do training, I consult, the legal nurse consulting piece is a big portion of it. I work with healthcare organizations to grow their leadership because I do believe that most companies are top-down.
I’m very big into transformational leadership as opposed to transactional. And then I really started to probably through my coaching clients, started to really embrace and understand the importance of creating a healthy work environment. So, that became the newest focus that I started to offer my consulting clients in healthcare and outside of healthcare is: what goes into creating a healthy work environment and what are some of the things that maybe we need to address that we tend to kind of sidestep because we’re not fully versed in how we should approach those things.
In your company, MFW Consultants, and you just mentioned that you work both within and without healthcare organizations, what are the organizations do you work with?
So, I have worked predominantly with healthcare organizations. So, I have worked with Yale-New Haven. I worked with Emery down in Georgia. And I am the career coach for the American Association of Perioperative Nurses, which is our OR team, the nurses who specialize in the operating room.
I have done a lot of public speaking for them, public speaking for 3M Healthcare and other health care durable medical equipment healthcare organizations, but I pretty much travel. I did a 10-city tour talking about healthy work environments bullying and instability with the OR Perioperative Nurses Association. That was really an eye-opener. I started to really appreciate the issue of a healthy work environment and the depth and scope of what still needed to be done.
Bullying in the workplace and unhealthy work environments are prevalent across every business vertical, and even though one may make a logical assumption that working in the care industry would have zero bullyings…
Yeah, I agree with you that unfortunately, what I call disruptive behavior is common in every work venue. It is commonly overlooked in every work venue which is why I’d like to bring it to the surface and shine some light on it. But it is confounding as to how come the issue of bullying and instability is so predominant in a caring profession such as nursing or medicine or other ways of being a professional caregiver.
We had a famous criminal here in the States who was asked “Why do you rob banks?” And he said, “Because that’s where the money is”. So, the thing is that people who engage in disruptive behavior really try the patience of many people and they always want to have some plausible deniability around why they’re doing what they’re doing. There’s always an excuse, there is always a reason, they always want to kind of get you to see them as a little bit of a victim, and then maybe you’ll get them one more chance.
Well, where else to go other than healthcare that is absolutely filled with caring, compassionate people who want to help. So, I think the issue of disruptive behavior in the healthcare venue is unique in that we are our own worst enemies. In many ways that it is our caring nature, that the person who is engaging in chronic instability or actual bullying is playing against us, so that we’re kind of getting played like a fiddle, and our compassionate nature now becomes somewhat of an enabling factor as opposed to a remedial factor.
We have to be very careful about that because most of our staff, 85%, 90% of our staff that are really showing up to give the very best they possibly can each and every day is watching leadership and scratching their heads saying, “What about this? Don’t you see?” I mean, if you were on the other end working side by side with these people it would become glaringly apparent.
But whatever happens behind closed doors when you are having that crucial conversation with someone, they are pushing all of your caregiver buttons. You are allowing that, you’re not understanding how this works and then you feel you’re being helpful or therapeutic. Actually, all you’re doing is extending the life of someone who is really turning your workplace into a place of toxicity.
Can you give us some examples, Phyllis, that you’ve met along the way and how you were able to help the teams locally to manage that disruptive behavior?
There are things that are commonly accepted by the authorities, as what creates a healthy work environment. Certainly, open communication, collaboration, authentic leadership, staffing issues need to be addressed. There are many authorities and you can Google them that pretty much have five or six, different key things or pillars if you will, that create healthy work environments.
What I’ve noticed is what they all have in common is they don’t talk about disruptive behavior. So, I have broken down disruptive behavior into two categories. Those that are chronically uncivil and those are actually bullying. People who are chronically uncivil, fortunately, so to speak, make the large just proportion of disruptive behavior. So, they’re not really people who are engaging in any kind of behavior that’s trying to target you or abuse you. They are more annoying, they can’t get to work on time. They can’t get their work done on time. They go into the break room and all they want to talk about is the latest drama in their lives, which of course, sucks all the air out of the room.
These are people that if they called in sick, you’d have a better day, you’d think it is going to be a good day. They just are the pebble in the shoe, they are so distracting, they are needy, they disrupt meetings, they have inappropriate humor at inappropriate times, they say things and then the rest of us seem to have to try to clean that up, as well as do our own work.
That is just demoralizing. And what can happen at that point is that you can start to bleed talent because there’s just so long that you’re real, your top-performing people who are really invested in your company, your organization, your department, will put up with that nonsense, just so long and, finally, they’ll say, “Okay, I need to get the fastest ticket out of there.” Whether they stay in the organization or not, they’re going to go and you’re going to be left with your poor performer as opposed to your top talent.
The other category here is it, and they usually are only about five percent. Thankfully, true bullies are only about five percent of your staff. These folks engage in real behavior that is what I call shadow behavior. It’s in the dark, it’s subtle, but they are targeting people. The result of that is the person is feeling abused, threatened, they’re made to feel incompetent, they are ridiculed. It is really an abusive type of behavior.
I call this a narcissistic bully because the personality of a bully is very, very aligned with this psychological profile of the personality disorder known as narcissism. It’s all about them. All you’re supposed to do is accommodate, accommodate, accommodate because they have no reason, they’re so perfect that they really have no reason to make an accommodation to change their ways because there’s nothing about them that needs changing. You need to change.
They will use plausible deniability to talk about why they are abusing another staff person. If a staff person complains about them, they’ll say, “Well, I was just trying to give him an orientation. I was just trying to give them a sense of reality. They better grow a thicker skin or they’re never going to make it. I’m trying to get them to toughen up a little bit.” But whatever, plausible explanation they want to give at the end of that is that this person is just really abusive.
So, if you think about people who are chronically uncivil, the pain in the neck in the department, they really have low emotional intelligence. They don’t understand, they have very poor self-awareness about how they’re acting. They have less self-management skills about how to remediate or think before they say or act. They are clueless so to speak, you can bring it up to them, and then they need to make adult choices as to whether or not they’re going to try to change or learn how to try to change.
But a bully or narcissistic bully, they’re rooted in what they’re doing. I think one of the things that we have to understand is narcissists only have relationships based on usefulness, they don’t have a relationship like you and I. We could be friends. We could be colleagues across the pond, so to speak. And, we could have common ground and we would build a relationship from there.
For a narcissist, I would be connected to you based on how useful you are to me and if you’re no longer useful to me, I just kick you to the curb. People don’t understand that because they see people who are narcissists, as people you might want to align with because they seem so powerful when actually their personality is so very, very fragile. People who are in leadership positions need to understand the compliments they are offering you, the insights, the alliances, they’re offering you are really just to use you and your position in order to enable their bad behavior and perhaps, even help move them up the ladder.
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