Why Leaders Need to Improve their Bedside Manner

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I recently spent some time in a doctor’s office (nothing serious, thankfully). As you know, this is rarely an expedited affair so I had plenty of time to people watch. Specifically, I was watching the interactions between patients and doctors. There were a set of doctors who engaged their patients with a warm smile and some caring words. Another set acted as if they were entering a high-level business negotiation—they conducted themselves with a confident, cold aloofness that seemed to project expertise. My question for you—which doctor do you choose?

I have been engaged in a 10-year argument regarding this very question with a colleague. If we had to choose, would we pick a medical professional with personality or one with skill. She says personality, I have said skill. New research is showing that I may have to admit I’ve been wrong.

In a series of studies, doctors who are warm, reassuring, and connect with their patient have significantly better health outcomes. In one study, the doctor simply gave a few words of encouragement, “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away.” No medical treatment was provided, yet with this one sentence, patients reported that their allergic reactions were less itchy.

Another study utilized a placebo cream to reduce participants’ allergic reactions. They found that the placebo only worked when the doctor projected cordiality and competence. When the doctor appeared businesslike and distant but highly competent, the cream had a marginal effect. And when the doctor appeared colder and less competent, the cream had no effect.

This research may help you choose a doctor, but you should also consider incorporating it into your leadership practices. When you are “treating” your employees, are you truly attempting to connect or do you tend to opt for the distant, cold demeanor? When you are encouraging the team, do you give meaningless support like, “It’s going to be fine,” or do you engage them and their actual needs?

Like the doctor-patient rapport, leaders who are warmer and more competent are better able to set powerful, consequential expectations. And, in turn, these expectations have a measurable impact on performance outcomes and organizational success.

I’ve seen too many leaders choose the cold/competent route and then wonder why the team is not passionate, engaged, and thriving. This is not “feel good” research; this is quantitative evidence that the attitude you project and the efforts you make to connect with those you lead can have a meaningful impact. Mix that with competence, and you will be unstoppable.

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