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Hey pharmacists, don’t act while swallowing (bad) pills

We know that emotional decisions rarely end being up the right ones. When this happens, great leaders have the ability to zoom out, resist the urge to be swept away by the details and focus on the overall broader situation.

Here’s a true story about pharmacy staff turnover with a moral: No matter how great the pharmacy team, stuff happens.

Great teams cannot prepare for everything, but their true strength comes out in how they respond to challenge.
Earlier in my career, our pharmacy team underwent vast staff turnover. On a team of 20, we lost eight workers in six months. We were running lean in a hard-to-recruit profession and starting to feel it. The reasons were multifactorial. Industry cuts, corporate head office selling the company, a steep learning curve brought on by a new software system and local community pressures to out-perform new competitors’ promises.

We were getting hit hard with compounding challenges and bleeding heavily. A worried group of technicians approached me, wanting us to hire two mediocre staff members that none of us knew enough about. They were panicking, emotional and wanted help. The summation of unlucky events within a short time felt like swallowing one gigantic pill going down sideways.
We know that emotional decisions rarely end being up the right ones. When this happens, great leaders have the ability to zoom out, resist the urge to be swept away by the details and focus on the overall broader situation. The mission and core values lead to the real answers that are not always apparent at first. Zooming out allows us to resist reacting to snapshots and shows a view of averages. While looking at the average of a series of problems, we get a sense of how truly urgent or non-urgent things are and how best act.
I took the technicians' concerns and feelings seriously and interviewed the two candidates. They were not the right fit, despite decent credentials and experience. Hiring them would have given us some immediate help, but cause long-term problems, only to give us more pills to swallow later. The techs looked at me as if I had three heads and I knew they were the right people for the job because they listened to what I said next.
I explained that we needed to pause, reflect and face the music. We were swallowing a pill during an emotionally taxing time and this was not the environment to bring in new people. Reacting while the fire was hot would lead us to being burned and we needed to put our heads down, stay together and not react. We needed to let the fire cool, trust that the adversity would make us better and show us where our areas of improvement were.  

So, we did. It was a very challenging time for everyone and we wore it hard for two months. There were long hours, missed family time, sleepless nights and extra work on each person to keep the standard of care up. 

Real-world pharmacy graffiti
Then the magic happened: in a morning staff meeting, I took a black Sharpie® onto a stepladder and wrote “MENTAL DURABILITY” in capital letters on the wall six feet above the main prescription order entry workstation. That area of the pharmacy was out of public view and known as a hot spot due to its busy, stressful hours. I said nothing and the look on their faces was a mixture of “I can’t believe he just did that in permanent marker, head office is going to kill him” mixed with “oh crap, we’re in trouble.”

I needed to capture their attention and pull their heartstrings to capitalize on the opportunity of the message I was about to deliver. Paraphrasing, I said:

All teams face adversity. However, the great ones always find a way out shinier than they started. It is called mental durability and you have all demonstrated it! Kudos to each of you, you have what it takes to get us out of a hole and nothing will stop us thereafter. We might get some questions from head office about writing on the wall, but I would like to see them argue about why we deserved the words. Next time it hits the fan, look at our trophy up there and use it to remind you that you have the mental durability to see through any challenge. 

Then I announced that we had a full-time role now open for a part-time person who paid her dues. We promoted her, elevating the team and resetting a culture. The message was: work hard, patiently stay with us and your opportunity will come. 

That same week we hired a great technician who later brought two colleagues with her from her previous pharmacy. The shortage of people forced each of us to get better, strengthening our weaknesses. With a growing team, we saw the light. All because we did not react. We zoomed out, resisted making rash decisions and swallowed the tough pills together.

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