Michael Dowling: Look to healthcare to remember what decency means

Too often, we come to appreciate decency only in light of its absence. When someone or something violates the social code of decency, or lacks a sincere desire to do the right thing, we are reminded of this unsung virtue's significance. 

Considering the contentious rhetoric we have witnessed at the highest levels of government throughout this past election season, now is the time for leaders to emphasize decency as the most important trait any one person can exhibit in their organization. Decency isn't provocative. It's not innovative or prone to hot takes. It's also not especially challenging — I doubt your performance reviews have a category for one's decency. 

Most of us are raised to believe that this virtue is elemental in our lives, much like water and oxygen, and serves as a baseline for how we interact with one another and those within our communities. As strange as the world may get, most of us have come to believe that a standard of decency will always hold. 

Yet, based on the behavior of countless political candidates who seemed willing to say or do anything to get elected, it's clear that our collective sense of decency has been violated over the past several months. 

The end result is a pervasive lack of trust, respect and empathy that prevents us from getting anything done. To solve any problems in healthcare or in broader society, we need to reclaim the value of decency and civility. Compromise has become a dirty word. Conflicts too quickly become personal, leaving problems unsolved. Empathy is seen as weakness, or worse, betrayal. Why?

Perhaps that's a question each of us needs to continue to ask ourselves and our colleagues. Certainly, the Internet and social media — and their lack of accountability — have fueled incivility for years, with those who shout the loudest and hurl the most poisonous insults getting the most attention.  

It doesn't take a CEO to tell you our country is divided. If you lead a healthcare organization, this is where we need your time and energy. Division and indecency have no place in our institutions, and each of us needs to ensure this message is heard loud and clear.  

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen displays of decency, civility and respect during our most trying moments. We share a common mission and believe nobody should be left behind. As healthcare leaders, all of us should be constantly promoting a culture where our employees are team-oriented, collaborative, inherently trustworthy and respect one another's viewpoints. These traits are fundamental to a healthy culture, and will get us through our darkest nights and brightest days. 

There is an old adage in management: be hard on the problem and soft on the people. When I worked in government, my colleagues and I would often argue throughout the day over things like budget and strategy. In the evening, we would go to dinner and sometimes talk about our disagreements. This was an ordinary dynamic. We respected one another and wanted to get things done together. Of course, we had differing opinions, but we were always united in our mission.

The bottom line is people can see the world differently and still share mutual respect. As business and healthcare leaders, we need to make civility an ordinary and expected dynamic once again. In our own organizations, we can uphold decency as a sign of strength by, for instance, removing the bully who screams at colleagues and can't have a rational, pragmatic discussion.  

In healthcare, our care teams have been role models of decency, and our nation would benefit from a closer study of them. Regardless of their circumstance, background, belief or opinion, our caregivers should be treating patients with respect and decency at all times. If they don't, it's time to weed the garden and let them go. Culture is the personality of an organization. It's how the human elements connect to one another. You can't build a culture of decency if you have people who defy it. 

Considering everything we have gone through this year, leaders must plan for the “new” normal. We must continually ask ourselves, what are our daily goals? We need to seek out people who believe in the mission, who believe in teamwork and value respect despite differences of opinion. Make a commitment to uphold decency with your colleagues in the executive ranks and throughout the entire organization. Share stories about what it looks like and what it means. Decency — a trait that once seemed so ordinary and right — should receive as much, if not more, attention and appreciation in your organization as any other value or competency. 

It's a rare moment when leaders in healthcare are called to refamiliarize our institutions with something that once seemed so common. Our work, so often, is about embracing the novel and cutting edge. Let's move forward, leading people who genuinely want the best for everyone in their workplace, which is one where everyone feels respected and valued.

And let us agree to never, ever take decency for granted again. 


Michael Dowling has served as president and CEO of Northwell Health and its workforce of more than 74,000 since 2002.

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