Issues up close Managing yourself

self manage management brain

Learn to manage yourself before you try to lead anyone else. This was an important insight that 120 nurse managers in South Florida shared during interviews with our research team about leadership skills. While it has always been important for nurses to be knowledgeable about their work, self-management in leadership and practice is now considered equally important. Self-management or personal mastery sometimes is described as emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to understand and control what we feel (our emotions) and the way we act (our response to these emotions). Nurses who develop skills in managing themselves know how their communication and actions affect others. When you develop personal mastery, you are able to look at your mistakes, acknowledge them, and learn from them. Many leaders will tell you that learning to manage yourself often is the toughest leadership challenge. (See ANA Leadership Institute by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Key behaviors in managing yourself

From our discussions with nurse leaders, we identified some key behaviors to achieving personal mastery. A good place to start is to reflect on your current actions. Ask yourself whether you do the following:

  • Seek feedback on your own personal strengths and weaknesses.
  • Manage yourself effectively in emotionally charged situations.
  • Maintain a professional demeanor and serve as a role model for other staff.
  • Assume responsibility for your own professional growth and career goals.
  • Demonstrate leadership in situations that demand professional action.
  • Learn from setbacks and failures as well as from successes.
  • Demonstrate a passion for excellence and a commitment to quality.
  • Establish effective networks with professional colleagues.
  • Set achievable career goals and execute plans that are developed.
  • Support a team climate where self-development and self-improvement are valued.
  • Follow through on commitments and agreements.
  • Admit mistakes in spite of the potential for negative consequences.
  • Demonstrate fairness in dealing with all levels of staff.
  • Project optimism.
  • Fulfill commitments to other team members.

Strategies to more effectively manage yourself

If you are like most nurses, you probably reviewed the list above and recognized opportunities for self-improvement. In 1999, Peter F. Drucker wrote a now-classic leadership article for the Harvard Business Review titled “Managing oneself.” He observed that there are few naturally great achievers in life. Most of us will need to learn to manage ourselves to be successful. Here are five strategies to better manage yourself, adapted from Drucker’s thinking on this subject.

Know your strengths.

When I ask nurses about their personal strengths and weaknesses, they often pause and have difficulty answering the question. Understanding your own key strengths is important. To manage yourself effectively, you want to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. One of the most powerful ways
of identifying our strengths is to seek feedback from those we work with on a regular basis and from those who supervise us. Many organizations use 360-degree feedback instruments for leadership development, which can lead to extraordinary growth when used wisely. If you don’t have access to these tools at your workplace, Gallup Corporation offers a great resource. If you purchase one its books, such as Strengths Finder 2.0 or Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, you will receive an access code to take the strengths survey. After you complete the assessment, you will receive a personalized strengths-based leadership guide based on your top five strengths. You may be surprised by what you learn, but the information can serve you well on your journey to better self-management.

Identify how you get things done.

It’s interesting that few of us ever stop to analyze how we take in new information and how we get our work done. An important question to ask yourself is: Are you are a reader or a listener? Do you need to write or take notes to gain clarity on a subject (a reader), or do you want to talk through a problem (a listener)? If you are by nature a reader rather than a listener, you may need to follow up conversations by reading more on the topic. Recognizing your personal work habits also is critical. Do you work better alone or do you prefer to work on a team? Nurses who enjoy teamwork may become unhappy in roles where significant time is spent alone reviewing charts or other information.

Consider also how you manage stress. Not all of us can do our best work in highly stressful situations. You might not enjoy a staff position in a busy emergency department if pressure and time constraints make you feel stressed. Also, not everyone wants a formal leadership role on the team. Ask yourself whether you want to be a decision maker or prefer to play a support role.

Understand your values.

Drucker suggested that organizational values should be the ultimate litmus test on whether a job is the right one for you. Do the organization’s culture, mission, and strategic direction align with what you believe about your work? Some nurses seek work in for-profit environments and then complain about the focus on budget and stock shareholder value. Many nurses enjoy working at academic medical centers and would strongly miss the value placed on learning if they sought other employment. Avoid making the wrong choice about a work setting by considering values in advance. When your values are in conflict, it may be impossible to do your best work.

Figure out where you belong.

Figuring out where you belong in the world and what type of work you are meant to do can be a challenge. Understanding the context of your environment and the impact that other team members have on your performance is important. Working with a great team can provide a strong sense of belonging and enable you to do good work. Job fit in the workplace matters. You will feel well-placed and gratified when the demands of the job fit with your best talents. Acknowledging when a career path or work setting is not the right one for you takes courage and insight.

Decide what you can contribute.

Given your strengths, how do you get things done? And based on your values, where can you make the greatest contribution? We encounter many opportunities throughout our careers, but not all will be the right fit. Just because you have the capability and experience to assume certain positions doesn’t mean that you should do them. When you do the work you were meant to do, you will thrive.

Many elements in today’s complex and often chaotic healthcare environment are outside our control. But we can help to promote our own success as professionals if we start by managing ourselves.

Selected references

Drucker PF Managing oneself. Harvard Bus Rev. 1999;77(1):20-4.

Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books; 2006.

Rath T. Strengths Finder 2.0. Washington DC: Gallup Press; 2007.

Rath T, Conchie B. Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. Washington DC: Gallup Press; 2009.

Sherman RO, Bishop M, Eggenberger T, Karden R. Development of a leadership competency model from insights shared by nurse managers. J Nurs Admin. 2007;37(2):85-94.

Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.

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