I'll never forget the day.
I walked into the CS department as a new leader and it was like going back to a 1980's-era office for a high-school career counselor. Pictures of cute little kittens holding on a limb by only a fluffy paw with the words "Hang in there!" bold across the bottom, and a poster-sized illustration of a stork trying to swallow a frog who had his little frog hands around the stork's throat with the words "Don't ever give up!" inspiringly dotted along the side.
You know what I'm talking about.
And I trashed them quicker than it takes a junior high dance to get awkward.
Department Irony: Happy Thoughts and Sad People
Why was I so quick to become the Grinch who Stole "Inspiration"?
Well for starters, even before I saw the posters, I had met the sad people who worked in the department. They had been neglected in their training, ignored in their concerns, and had any faith they might have had in 'the system' undermined through years of favoritism, deceit, and general ineptness of their department leaders. They were shells of their former-selves, eager new SPD technicians, ready to tackle the microbiological world of geobacillus Stearothermophilus with earnestness and zeal. Their professional passion had died through years of leadership malnourishment.
And serving as their tombstones were these cheap, shallow excuses for inspiration and encouragement hung up as posters on the wall. The staffed walked by them every day on the way out to their workstations and sat within inches of them during their breaks. But the posters had become a part of the department machinery that was eating them up and spitting them out every day. The words said "Don't Give Up!" but the message of the department was that everyone had already given up... on themselves and each other. Their leaders had used the right words, but never had actions that matched up. And the inconsistency was a plague upon their professional progress.
The Real World of Sterile Processing Victory, Defeat, and a Never-Ending Fight for Morale
The reasons this stark irony and inconsistency are so deadly to the morale of a Sterile Processing department is because our jobs are really hard, our days are often really thankless, we really break a sweat in our PPE, and there are days that really do feel defeating. Cart washers going out hurt our souls, as much as they hurt our backs. Getting "stuck" by a scalpel blade in decontam is infinitely scarier than a host of other workplace injuries that can happen in other industries. Our mistakes can delay surgeries, frustrate surgeons, and unthinkably cause harm to babies, mothers, grandpas, and graduates. These realities can and should weigh heavy on the shoulders of our technicians.
But amidst all the challenges, we also experience tremendous victories as a Sterile Processing team. We save lives. We preempt the horrible suffering that could occur due to a surgical site infection. We provide sterile and functional tools to the anatomical artists in the OR who reconstruct broken bodies and broken bones. We help find tumors, deliver babies, and restore sight. Every safe and successful surgery means that our team declared victory over the forces of bioburden, conquering the microbial chaos with chemical warfare.
Positive thinking alone can not capture the depth of these victories and potential defeats. While cheerleading may work for football games, you don't see cheer squads on the battlefield for a reason. Yes, soldiers need inspiration, but it's of a different level and for different reasons than a quarterback. The stakes are higher -- just like in Sterile Processing. We are talking Life and Death. Healing or suffering. Hope or despair. Our teams need department leaders who understand the risks, acknowledge the struggles, share the defeats, and genuinely celebrate the victories. We need inspiring people much more than we need inspiring posters.
Needed: Leaders Who Grapple With Reality
I'm a fan of motivation and I enjoy encouragement as much as the next guy. But don't fall for the lie that merely "thinking good thoughts" or "looking on the bright side" is enough to rescue your CS/SPD team from the depths of despair and disarray. Sometimes your people need you to affirm the chaos, admit the brokenness, and truly grapple with reality. When staffing is low, equipment is down, and volume is piling up -- your team may not need "happy thoughts" as much as they need #InspiredLeadership. Leaders fail when they ignore present realities and only point toward future promises. It gets old real quick and you lose all credibility. Instead, take your team to the foot of that fiery mountain, tell them how far it is to the top, then climb the heck out of it together! That's the kind of thing that builds strong teams and confident techs -- not posters of cute kittens hanging on by a paw...
What say you?