There once was an executive named Joe, who worked for a medical device company. Joe was very worried about the device that he was working on. He thought that it was too complicated, and he thought that its complexity created margins of error that could really hurt patients.
He wanted to find a way to help, but when he looked around his organization, nobody else seemed to be at all worried. So, he didn’t really want to say anything. After all, maybe they knew something he didn’t. Maybe he’d look stupid. But he kept worrying about it, and he worried about it so much that he got to the point where he thought the only thing he could do was leave a job he loved.
In the end, however, Joe did find a way to raise his concerns. And what happened then is what almost always happens in this situation—it turned out everybody had exactly the same questions and doubts! So now Joe had allies, and everyone on his team was thinking about how to solve the problem together. And yes, there was debate and argument, but that allowed everyone around the table to be creative, to solve the problem, and to change the device.
By speaking up, Joe wasn’t undermining anyone’s work. In fact, he was improving the overall quality of the team’s work and protecting others from harm. Joe had always been passionately devoted to his organization and the higher purposes that the organization served, but he had always feared the conflict that would result from speaking up. When he did finally speak up, he discovered that he had not only contributed much more to the team than he had ever imagined, but his colleagues did not think negatively of him—they thought of him as a leader.
The story above was borrowed from a presentation by Margaret Heffernan, a writer and keynote speaker who frequently presents on how conflict avoidance and selective blindness can lead organizations astray. Fear of conflict is the very thing that leads to communication breakdowns and broken processes, which in turn, result in preventable errors.
We know from the premise of our Culture of Trust that significant safety failures are almost never caused by isolated errors committed by individuals. Rather, they result from multiple, smaller errors in environments with serious underlying system flaws. This is why regular feedback and communication is important.
A couple weeks ago, I shared a story about my own experiences with constructive feedback, and how at times, I have also found it uncomfortable to give and to receive. However, I realize the importance of constructive conversations, and even though they may involve a difference of opinion, they are a very necessary part of conducting safe, effective and successful work for several good reasons:
- We don’t always have an internal cue that lets us know that we’re wrong about something until it’s too late.
- Without a shared understanding of people’s points of view when it comes to concerns, people might blame problems on other people, and not where it actually should be, like broken or inefficient processes.
- Continual two-way feedback allows people to focus on one or two areas for improvement, rather than having to address a much larger problem that has already caused harm or will require significant intervention and time to resolve.
If we truly care about providing the safest care for our patients, we will be committed to speaking up. Continual quality and safety improvement is the right thing to do. As we observed in Joe’s case, speaking up helped the team and the individual to achieve success. That is why we have to be willing to listen to and consider what others are saying to us. Individually, we must keep an open mind and be willing to work through problems strategically. As a team, we know this is important because it will ultimately help us succeed. Unless we think together, we will fail to get the best out of one another!
Whether we have a gut feeling about the condition or functionality of a device, or we feel concerned that a care process may be unsafe, we need to act with safety in mind and speak up. In health care, we are accountable for our own actions and for those of our team. As we go about our important work, let’s be conscious of any system design that may potentially cause harm if we do not identify the flaws and fix them before a patient is affected. Instead of being afraid of conflict, we have to address the issues head-on.
My job is to make sure that you have what you need to be able to take care of our patients. If you don’t, my hope is that you will make your manager aware, and if you are the manager and you cannot get what you need to ensure your team can provide the right care at the right time in the right way for your patients, you will continue to escalate the matter, without fear of consequence, until you get a resolution. This does not mean that the decision will always be exactly what you want or asked for, but you should receive an answer and a resolution that leaves you with a sense of closure.
Remember: “You can blame people who knock things over in the dark or you can begin to light candles. You’re only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing.” – Paul Hawken