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Alison with (L-R): Nicole Wilcox, Hannah Teaney, Michelle Williams, Lydia Prestgard, and Heather Smith.
Alison Flynn Gaffney and Marcie Hopkins, U of U Health.
Build Trust By Spending Time
Every productive relationship begins with trust, and trust rests on creating positive connections with people. How do you connect with those on your team? How do you understand their concerns? U of U Health's all-star connector Alison Flynn Gaffney experiments with a new approach.

don’t normally watch episodes of Undercover BossFor those unfamiliar with "Undercover Boss," it’s a show that disguises executives and places them in jobs within their organization to learn more about what employees do and how front-line staff really feel about the company (and the leadership). looking for inspiration in my day job, but one snowy weekend watching the show I started wondering if there was a way that I could do something like that. At the time, I had recently transitioned to leading new teams across our organization, and I was trying to find ways to learn more and connect.

I knew it wasn’t feasible to go undercover. But it gave me an idea to go deeper than traditional “rounds.” I am out of my office quite often and chat for a few minutes informally in between meetings and walking around our system with our faculty, staff and other leaders all the time, but that is insufficient to get a deep understanding of what life is like for those team members.

I came up with the idea for RISE—Respect, Inspire, Service, Excellence (since we all love acronyms in health care)—where over 6 months I spend an hour or two-sometimes more embedded with team members learning about their work, who they are as humans, what we do well, what we can do better and what I can do to support their success. So far I’ve been to the Sleep-Wake Center,  Nutrition Care Services (NCS), Rheumatology, Interventional Radiology (IR), Valet, Gift Ship, Starbucks, and Cardiology, with plans to visit all of my areas of responsibility. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. So much so that I plan to continue RISE as part of my own leadership commitment.

Every visit is unique, but I’ve seen three important themes emerge:

#1: Being genuinely interested builds relationships

Working side by side with staff members breaks down barriers that might normally keep someone from telling me how they feel about their job and the challenges they face.

Ask about who they are, how long they have been in their job, and whether they have spent time in any other positions at University of Utah Health. Share yourself with them—develop the start of a connection. Always bring up two questions:

  1.  What are we doing really well?
  2.  What do we really need to improve?

Listen as they tell their stories. Sometimes they’re amazing things things, like the employee in Nutrition Care Service who shared with me that when he delivers meals he makes a point with every meal delivery to engage with the patient, their family member or visitor. It’s a lesson he learned early on from a patient’s husband, who asked him why he and the team weren’t smiling. That interaction changed how he did his job from that moment forward, and one that he actively works to spread to all his colleagues so the work they do can brighten someone’s day.

afg tiles ncs scrubs

Sometimes team members tell me about things that need to improve, like the employees in Interventional Radiology who frequently miss lunch breaks because they are so busy. We might not be able to reduce their clinical workload right away (we are working on scheduling) but we can get creative in our problem-solving and bring in lunch for the team on the busiest days. Even a small gesture like that could be the difference between a valuable employee who gets frustrated and leaves, or one who decides to stay because we show in real time that we care.

#2: Act on what you learn

A lot of front-line staff  feel they share feedback with leaders but get frustrated when change doesn’t come or come quick enough. Part of my commitment with RISE is to take action based on what I hear or see myself and communicate.

Take a lot of notes—the good and the challenging—and then circle back with directors and managers to get a complete picture. Communicate with the staff if we are changing something because of the feedback that was  provided. Even if we can’t implement an idea, it’s important to communicate why, thank them for sharing the idea, and as applicable share any other learning that came out of their ideas.

#3: It’s worth the time you spend

One of the biggest challenges with RISE is the time commitment. Sometimes I have to reschedule a RISE visit because we have an unexpected urgent need in the hospital. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to block out several hours of a day when there are emails to answer and phones ringing and meetings to attend, but every time I devote this time I’m reminded of how much I gain personally and professionally from the experience and in turn our teams voices get heard.

afg starbucks valet

The RISE initiative gives me an opportunity to break through the day-to-day chaos of meetings and challenges. The time brings me back to the reason we are all here: to provide exceptional patient care. We’re all part of a big system, and while I might have a title that says I’m “a boss”, I believe I need to earn the trust of our people at every level of the organization. RISE is helping me be a more effective leader. One Team, One Mission!

*Originally published September, 2019


Alison Flynn Gaffney

Interim Chief Operating Officer, University of Utah Health

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