How Jan Transformed Relationships with Her Employees

April 20, 2018

Employee satisfaction for Jan’s staff was at 1%. You read it right – 99% of this nurse manager’s staff were unhappy in their job. As is usually the case, they blamed the boss. Meanwhile, Jan was adamant that she was only holding poor performers accountable.

One year later, 85% of Jan’s employees reported having high job satisfaction. Significantly, patient safety had improved dramatically as well.

The turnaround is quite a story. When I first met Jan she was the most miserable leader I’d ever met. In her job for a little over a year, she had battled the “bullies” on her unit who had created a culture that led to atrocious patient care. For example, senior nurses were sleeping on night shift, leaving all the work for the new nurse grads to do.

When Jan confronted the offenders, the older nurses threatened to wait in the parking lot after their shift to retaliate against the newcomers who they suspected of reporting them.

No wonder every single new hire left within a year. And the surgical site infection rate was two times higher than any other unit. And patient satisfaction was the lowest in the hospital. And, and, and…

“These people are CRAZY!” Jan told me. “I have to deal with this kind of outrageous behavior almost every day. I’ve been working 60 hours a week trying to turn this unit around. Now the staff is blaming me for the problems!”

Jan was completely demoralized. She had tried so hard for so long to attack the problems plaguing her unit, only to realize that even the “good” nurses no longer trusted her.

“My husband tells me I should just quit. He’s tired of hearing me complain every night. All I can think about is fixing the problems. It’s affecting our marriage.”

When leaders burn out, both their professional and personal life is impacted by symptoms such as:

  • Intolerance
  • Irritability
  • Low Creativity
  • Critical Comments
  • Memory Impairment
  • Poor Decisions

When we interact with people we tune into the conversation with both our eyes as well as our ears. Our brains watch for the subtle signals that a person subconsciously transmits, so we can read the subtext of the conversation. This is how we can tell what the person’s ‘attitude’ is, regardless of whatever words they may say.

Nine times out of 10 the signals that people transmit contain some degree of negativity. On the mild end of a bad conversation, a person may talk mostly about themselves. As the negativity intensifies, the individual will one-up us, criticize us, or even express outright hostility over something that occurred.

When we feel threatened, we use a very different brain circuit. Instead of processing the words we’re hearing though the prefrontal cortex (which is the rational, reasoning part of our brain), we engage our motor cortex (which prepares us for fight or flight).

At the same time our brain starts to release very different neurotransmitters. In a positive conversation in which we feel safe and respected, our brain produces feel good chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin. When we’re being assaulted, our brains are flooded with adrenalin (for quick reactions) and cortisol (to keep us on guard for hours).

How did Jan turn her life (and the lives of her staff) around from being extremely burned-out to feeling incredibly satisfied and successful? PROPEL coaching. She learned how people can empower their “best self” by using 6 principles of positive psychology: Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy and Legacy.

Jan had been spending 85% of her time dealing with the most negative people on her unit. Clearly she needed to continue to address the problems. However, she discovered she was more effective if she took the long-winded excuses and negative exchanges out of the conversations.

That strategy freed up time to talk to the staff members who were willing and able to engage in positive interactions. Jan learned to follow 3 steps that transformed her ability to create positive conversations: Inquiry, Mapping, and asking WWILL?

By asking questions designed to get people to share their stories, Jan was able to develop a ‘map’ of their world. She discovered what was important to each person, e.g. their kids, graduate school, etc. Then she followed them on their journey, mapping progress with expressions of enthusiasm when they experienced success and empathy when they struggled.

Jan developed WWILL power. She concluded conversations by asking: What Will It Look Like if you’re successful in taking the next step toward achieving the positive outcome you desire?


To learn more about how positive psychology can help leaders, register for the Society of Consulting Psychology webinar on April 30 at 7pm. The web address is:




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