Pull, Don’t Push!!!

When I was a fledgling shift manager with McDonald’s I attended a basic operations training class.  I don’t remember much about that class, except the one lesson that has stuck with me for my entire management career.  Thirty years in the telling, this is a multi-generational paraphrase of a concept originally presented by Dwight Eisenhower, but the essential message remains.

The instructor compared management of people to trying to move a piece of string.  You can move the string by pushing on it, but it will begin to curl up on itself and become more difficult to move it in the desired direction; but if you pullthe string, you can take the string anywhere you want to go.

I don’t remember making the conscious decision to be a string puller, and not a string pusher, but this lesson ultimately became the basis for my approach to leadership and management.  I’ve been able to apply it at every level – from managing individual crew persons in a McDonald’s restaurant to leading larger groups of professionals, and managers in their own right, to collaborating with external entities that are part of the systems I have worked within.

To me, “pulling the string” means creating shared vision, harmonizing goals and objectives (and/or demonstrating shared interest) and then clearing the path so that the individual, or the team, can accomplish that shared vision.  Coaching and appreciating along the way are all part of pulling the string too.

Management is the art (not science) of harnessing and coordinating activities and resources in order to achieve a defined objective.  Of course there is more to successful management than pulling the people string; but usually the most important resource that managers are harnessing and coordinating is their people.  Practicing effective employee relations is a core management skill.

String pushers are frequently the managers who say, “I shouldn’t have to show my appreciation that way – this is their job and they just have to do it in order to get paid”.  String pushers may be more likely to spend more time on rules and discipline than on coaching and appreciation.  Hard core string pushers may describe other approaches as “soft” or as too “touchy-feely”, but I have had the great good fortune to work with some very high performing folks – there was nothing soft about what some of these people were accomplishing!

String pushers aren’t necessarily bad managers, but I always saw pushing on the string as a lot more difficult than pulling it. It gets us all where we want to be with a lot less friction and resistance, and frankly, pulling the string is a lot more fun!

The long term services and supports arena is facing a workforce crisis. There are less workers available to provide care or support to people who need it, but the numbers of people who need that care and support is on the verge of exploding.  High turnover and high levels of absenteeism are rampant across all sectors of long term care.  (Check out the workforce related “In a Nutshell” issue brief at www.sagesquirrel.com). Providers, payers, policy makers and regulators have a shared interest in supporting workforce development, including strategies that promote the recruitment and retention of high quality direct care workers.

There are a number of studies that have demonstrated that the leading reasons for people leaving their jobs have more to do with how they are treated than with how they are paid.  Of course, we can’t discount Maslow’s hierarchy, but once you are past that basic threshold, most people leave because they aren’t treated like they would like to be treated.  I remember a not-for-profit nursing facility that had lower wages than any of the surrounding facilities, but their turnover was a tiny fraction of the turnover in the surrounding area.

Turnover is costly – and it can breed a very difficult cycle and lead to a lack of willingness to invest resources in the front line workforce. But stabilizing that workforce can lead to reduced costs associated with turnover and providers may then be more willing and able to invest additional financial resources as well.

The long-term care workforce is a scarce resource. Managing effectively and fully engaging your workforce in every care setting is critically important to managing that resource. All types of long term care providers rely on valuable human resources: nursing facilities, assisted livings, adult day centers, home health agencies, and personal services agencies. Challenges may be different in each sector but the principals of good operations and people management stay the same.

Long term care of any type doesn’t happen without the caregivers.  Companies say all the time “our people are our most important asset”.  One of the ways that this can be demonstrated is finding ways to pull that string, leading people, not pushing them.

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