How to Build, Manage, and Maintain Strong Teams in the Modern Health Care Space

Shot of a team of doctors having a meeting in a hospital

The working world post-COVID-19 looks a lot different, both in terms of how we work and what we do—which means that managers in leadership positions need to adapt to this new environment.

“Everything’s changed. There’s a tremendous amount of burnout in the industry. We’re on the other side of the Great Resignation. We’re seeing a lot of hybrid and fully remote work. And we’re obviously seeing a total shift in our work culture. So we need to be thinking about building strong teams in our new world,” says Louise Keogh Weed, program director of the Leadership Strategies for Evolving Health Care Executives program, instructor in the Department of Health Management at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, and the director of leadership training at the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care.

So how, exactly, can leaders build—and maintain—better teams in the modern age?

How a Health Care Team Needs “Norming” First

The first step, according to Keogh-Weed, is to create norms for the team (“norming”) by identifying ground rules for how its members will work together and interact. This is particularly important when a group operates in a Zoom environment instead of in person, since the remote aspect can lead to disconnection. One example of norming, in fact, is establishing Zoom etiquette, such as agreeing to keep one’s camera on unless absolutely necessary to indicate one’s transparency in meetings.

“Norming brings mutual agreement and interconnectedness into your group,” says Keogh-Weed. “And it essentially democratizes the responsibility for how the team will function because we’ve all agreed on how we want to work together. Anyone on the team can say, ‘We aren’t adhering to our norms right now.’ And to some extent, it removes the pressure on the leader, since we’ve created an interdependence.”

Health care organizations can be hierarchical and entrenched in a top-down method of leadership—so, building a functional team can often mean changing preexisting working dynamics. Norming can remove some of the rigidity out of this framework, allowing ideas to come from all members without fear of retaliation. In other words, says Keogh-Weed, “how are we creating spaces where people feel comfortable, where people feel like they can speak up or otherwise write out feedback? Norming allows us to indicate to everyone, ‘you’re safe in this space.'”

Optimizing a Team With Transparency, Processes, and Change Management

Obviously, a team can look different based on its functions and members, but (unless it’s already functioning well) norming will involve necessary change. As a result, members may bristle at being told to do things a new way or feel a sense of loss over changes in the group’s dynamics. This is a normal—and necessary—part of the process, explains Keogh-Weed. “By committing to transparency in these processes, by taking anything that’s implicit and making it explicit, we are telling people what it’s going to be like to work here. And people have a choice about whether they want to be on the team or not.”

After a manager creates norms and begins to build trust, Keogh-Weed notes that there are several questions they should keep in mind:

  • What processes are we using, and for what?
  • Who’s responsible for what, in the macro and micro sense?
  • How do I facilitate professional bonding for the group and establish trust between them?
  • How are we going to make decisions that concern the whole team?
  • How do we get and give feedback? How do we respond to it productively?
  • How do we respond and adapt when something’s not working?
  • How do we increase transparency around processes, roles, and responsibilities?
  • How do I manage at the individual and team level?

Committing to the process will also mean evolving norms throughout the team’s evolutions—when people leave or are hired, when new best practices are put in place, and so on. Keogh-Weed explains that these evolutions can look like mini change management cycles and that the leader can actually bring the team together in that cycle, such as involving them in the interview process when a new employee is brought on board, for example.

Moving Forward With the Team in Mind

Ultimately, leaders hoping to do this work must focus on controlling what they can control while leading from a grounded, vulnerable place that enables feedback and growth. This process also allows the team to become more than the sum of its parts: a system in its own right, changeable while still functional and strong. Members can do their work effectively, speak up when they need to, and feel empowered to make decisions that benefit the whole. “When we create transparent processes and expectations and roles and responsibilities, we all know exactly how we’re engaging—exactly how we’re showing up for other people,” says Keogh-Weed.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Leadership Strategies for Evolving Health Care Executives, an on-site program designed to develop skills in conflict resolution, operational analysis, employee management, and quality management to achieve individual and organizational goals.