Trust in the Time of Coronavirus

“Truth makes love possible.  Love makes truth bearable.” – Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

When I was starting out at a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I could not have told you who the CEO, COO, or CFO of my hospital was.  I knew we had them, of course, but they were an abstraction.  If I thought about them at all, it was as someone to blame when we didn’t have enough nurses, or when I was paying $100 a month (and this was almost 30 years ago!) to park 4 blocks away while just beneath the hospital there were mysterious “reserved” spots.  I didn’t know them, and frankly didn’t trust them.  While in some vague sense I knew we were a “non-profit,” it still felt like all the decisions made by executives were about making money.

And now I am one of those administrative abstractions to many people!  I think a lot about my experience as a clinician, and about what was real and what I just didn’t know about the work and motivation of those in the “C-suite.”  As far as what I didn’t know: I knew medicine was complex, but I didn’t appreciate how complex health care is.  Back then we didn’t talk about “systems-based practice” as a core competency for providers, and so I never really learned about it.  Even now, I think it is one of the harder things for clinicians to embrace.  The Hippocratic Oath compels us to think about the patient in front of us; systems-based practice compels us to think about all those patients and potential patients who are not in front of us.  Neither perspective is better, but both are incomplete.  Regardless of our role, it behooves us to consider how all of us are trying to balance the needs of each patient and of all patients.

As far as what was real that contributed to my lack of confidence in the people in suits, it was that I wasn’t privy to much.  Perhaps they did share information about the hospital’s finances and operations.  If so, I missed it; I suspect it was a combination of both.  But I doubt there was true transparency.  And if I had known then what I know now, I would have had more reason to trust those administrators and their motives.  To paraphrase Rev. Williams, truth makes trust possible.

That trust is always important.  At a time of disruption, uncertainty, and scarcity – like this time of coronavirus – it is absolutely essential.  If the people who work here can’t trust their leaders, if they question their motives, then we can’t possibly do what we need to: make the hard choices and shared sacrifices, to ensure that when the crisis passes we will emerge intact and able to continue our quest to being every family’s essential partner in raising healthier children.

All of us as leaders need to be truthful – open, honest, transparent.  We must share the information we have, even when it is scary.  We must admit when we don’t know, and ask when we don’t understand.  We must explain why we chose A over B, why we believe that choice produces the greatest good, even if the people we are talking with care only about B.  And we must be willing to adjust as new information becomes available, and be willing to admit mistakes.

Being truthful helps build and reinforce trust.  As leaders, we must also care – about our teams, and the organization.  Trust and caring make it easier to hear difficult truths.  Truth, trust, and caring: this is how we will get through this crisis, successfully, together.

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