President's Column: Preparing for Change With Adaptive Thinking

Aug 02, 2023

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As a young trauma nurse, AACN President Terry Davis admits she was a blunt communicator. Today, she leads directors who manage teams and initiatives, and she considers herself an adaptive thinker. "Adaptive thinkers embrace problems as opportunities to build a workplace improvement process or initiative that is guided by team expertise and participation."
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Skilled communication can help save lives, build relationships and guide team initiatives. It's a skill that we develop throughout our careers. I certainly continue to enhance my communication skills every chance I get.

When I was a trauma nurse, I communicated in a way that got things done quickly. I blocked out information that slowed me down or interfered with my focus on saving lives. If I did not like something, I vented to my peers rather than look for solutions. I was a linear thinker. I lacked flexibility and was very focused on the tasks and getting things done.

Once, after a long night shift as charge nurse on a surgical floor, a team member told me I needed to slow down as I was recording report for multiple patients. I responded that she needed to listen faster. Mine was probably not the best response!

Today, as a leader of directors who manage teams and initiatives, I have become a more adaptive thinker. Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericcson, who conducted extensive research on expertise and high-level human performance, defined adaptive thinking as the ability to "recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one." I also use Brené Brown's concept of approaching interactions with curiosity. Leading with curiosity, empathy and respect allows dialogue, creativity and psychological safety for the individual or teams I interact with.

Adaptive thinking also prepares us for the disruptive and unending changes we experience in healthcare. Adaptive thinkers embrace problems as opportunities to build a workplace improvement process or initiative that is guided by team expertise and participation. AACN's Clinical Scene Investigator (CSI) Academy program is a great example of this thinking in action.

Why are curiosity and adaptive thinking important – even in the sometimes chaotic environments we find ourselves? We're constantly dealing with staffing shortages, high- intensity workloads, work/life imbalance, burnout, etc. But if we, as nurses, lead with curiosity and apply adaptive thinking, we show we have the expertise to define the problems and create effective solutions that can help reduce the workload burden for nurses and improve work environments.

It's important that all of us – regardless of role – help design and transform healthcare and the environment we work in. The way we communicate the demands of our current situation is critical to create the fundamental changes that are needed. And we each see the demands and circumstances differently, depending on the expectations of our unique roles, so communication among everyone is crucial.

As nurses, we require the confidence to speak in a way that leaders will hear us. Have you heard the saying, "You speak so loudly, I can't hear what you are saying"? Our tone and a confident but collaborative approach amplify our expertise, which reinforces the likelihood that our point of view will be valued. That's important. If we approach a situation with curiosity and a willingness to learn from opposing points of view, we can create something even we did not imagine.

The outcomes of adaptive thinking and active listening can be a healthier work environment where:

  • Nurses and unit members thrive and want to stay
  • Authentic leaders guide interprofessional teams to collaborate and work together
  • Interconnected healthcare teams co-create processes that guide high-quality care
  • Team members are celebrated with meaningful recognition

Rising Together – We've Got This!

How can you apply adaptive thinking and active listening in your role and with your team to make your work environment a little healthier?
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