Teamwork in health care is a necessary although frequently elusive commodity. When teams work at their best, they are like a well-oiled machine. One member senses what needs to be done next and does it without delay or considerable argument. But how does one build a cohesive team in today’s diverse and eclectic health care environment?
Oscar Wilde opined in his 1889 essay, “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." I agree with this statement. In my infrequent moments of spare time, I have been watching Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso.” It depicts the story of a football coach from middle America who moves to London to coach an English football (soccer) team. Ted Lasso is handed a team of misfits, who, although good players, have no idea how to work together as a team. Over the course of several football seasons, he slowly manages to bring the players together. He does it not by coercion or heavy-handed tactics but through a slow and a deliberate journey toward success in teamwork.
Ted Lasso manages to bring the players along, one by one, toward his goal of team unity. In the beginning of the journey, they lose games because they cannot share the glory, or the soccer ball, with each other. As they slowly begin to respect each other for their individual talents as they contribute to the team, they begin to understand how a well-oiled machine moves its parts in harmony. As the ball is passed from one player to the other, goals are gradually scored. Slowly, the team begins to win together, both on and off the field.
How can we apply this to health care? There has been a long-standing saying in the field of nursing, that we “eat our young.” In other words, instead of welcoming new nurses, or any health care professional to work alongside of us, we tend to criticize and cut them down for each thing done wrong, or each non-conventional idea.
I happen to believe this journey of team success begins with good leadership. Charles S. Lauer, a magazine publisher, columnist, and health care leader once said, “Leaders don’t force people to follow, they invite them on a journey.” I believe it is essential to enlist our co-workers to journey together with us. Taking care of patients on a daily basis is hard work. It is often exhausting, regardless of the setting we are in: hospital, clinic, ER, office, anywhere. How do we begin? We begin one step at a time like Ted Lasso.
When a fellow nurse or NP or PA does something we question, we should support them and offer to help. There is always more than one way to accomplish a goal; find it together. I have rarely heard a doctor criticize another doctor; they stick together like glue. But nurses tend to struggle more with that concept. We could also stand to be more optimistic. Look at the flip side, or the bright side, or the silver lining — because it is always there when you look deep enough.
Listen to Others
Work on improvement from the bottom up and give suggestions, but most importantly, listen to those of others. Strive to shine the light on someone you work with, not on yourself. Often, you find the light has a way of reflecting back on you as part of shared success.
Most of us, whether we are three years old or 43 years old, are a bit resistant to being told what to do and do not want to be given a playbook as to exactly how to get a task done. Let’s embrace the differences that exist. In the different health care settings I have worked in during my career, there always exists the same cast of characters. Every group has a show-off, an introvert, a peacemaker, a pessimist, an optimist, a task manager, and a boots-on-the-ground person. The question is: Who will emerge as leader?
Let Others Lead
Give the quiet person a chance to be a leader. They will manage to voice all the innovative ideas they have kept to themselves because they were never asked. Embrace that person who always finds a way to put themselves in the limelight and help them engage with that quiet person. The juxtaposition of the two may be a harmonious relationship. Our best work is accomplished when we work together. Any good code team will tell you that saving a life takes the work of everyone present, working together. TIt's the same for a team in the OR — instruments move seamlessly from one hand to another without skipping a beat.
Give the boots-on-the-ground person an opportunity to be the leader and support them in their endeavors. That person probably has the most intimate knowledge of what improvements to make. Try to convince the showoff to be the boots-on-the-ground. Switch up the game so everyone experiences someone else’s challenges and triumphs.
Lead by Example
Ted Lasso’s characteristics include humility and a sage ability to lead his team on a journey of personal discovery and revelation. He tells stories as examples rather than issuing edicts of how to behave. He also leads by example and displays patience and respect. And he’s a good listener, which allows the players to verbalize and inculcate their self-discoveries.
We can all be winners in the health care setting. But like I said, it starts with you leading by example, and sometimes that example is to let others lead. I strive to be more like Ted and encourage you to figure out further applications and approaches on your own. Your success will be in your team’s success.
What are your suggestions for how to be a better health care team? Share in the comments.
Dr. Karen Scanlon Henry is a nurse practitioner in medical oncology in Miami, Florida. She enjoys baking, long walks, reading, and philosophical discussions with her adult children. Writing has been a lifelong passion and hobby for her. Karen is a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
Illustration by April Brust