Aaron Sardell: Leadership psychology and NARH



Social Psychology speaks of two kinds of leadership. "Task" leadership is a management style that sets standards, organizes work and maintains a strong focus on the goals of operation. "Person" or "social" leadership refers to a management style that explains decisions, mediates conflicts and supports a high level of sensitivity to workers’ needs. Depending on the purpose of a particular operation, one style might be more beneficial than another. Generally speaking, a leader who focuses solely on "task" is likely to have disgruntled and burnt-out employees who may not work to the best of their abilities, or will need to be replaced on a regular basis, while "person" leaders run the risk of not keeping production up, thereby threatening the livelihood of all workers. Many studies indicate that for most businesses effective leaders exhibit a high degree of both task and person leadership.

As a society, it makes the most sense to promote and reward the most effective leaders. Still, accounts of business leaders at the national level suggest that is not always the case. CEOs who sell companies or leave companies after a bad performance are often rewarded with millions in "golden parachute" packages; often at the expense of employees at lower levels. Trade unions that aggressively represent the "person" needs in a business, have at times become self-serving in a way that threatened the entire operation of companies and governments.

On the local level, the recent closing of North Adams Regional Hospital provides a case in point. Admittedly, it may take time to understand the full story, and it is very likely that the closing of this hospital was due to many factors over a long period of time. Still, an initial look at the leadership styles in this situation seems warranted.

A topical review of decisions by the administrators and the Board of Directors of both Northern Berkshire Heath System and Berkshire Health Systems suggest strong task leadership positions. NARH leadership had been very clear about the instability of finances years before the actual closing. Perhaps leadership remained too hopeful till the very end that some kind of a rescue would come. Nonetheless, giving workers and staff only three days to close up services, leave positions and say goodbye is clearly a decision based on what they believed would be in best interest of the business.

Berkshire Health Systems, which was probably in the best position to help NARH before the closing, decided it was in their best business interest to let NARH close. By letting NARH close, Berkshire Health Systems gets a double win for its business. First, by getting a better deal on "the spoils" (property and medical services) of Northern Berkshire Health Systems, and second by polishing its public image as the "rescuer" of medical services in Northern Berkshire County.

The opposite position was taken by the leadership of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). Aggressive "person" leadership appears at the heart of hard line bargaining positions (nurses pay and schedules), along with the MNA’s very public demonstrations against the closing of financially unsustainable hospital departments (psychiatry and pediatric inpatient services). The MNA fought most attempts by hospital administration to ease the financial strain on the hospital. In the end, MNA’s leadership was so focused in its effort to protect its members that it was completely oblivious to the precarious financial situation of the hospital.

Task leadership and government standards must certainly have been central on the minds of the federal officials who denied the hospitals’ request to have NARH designated as a "critical access facility." The same could be said for the local elected officials, who only now are "clearing their schedules" in an effort to show "person" leadership to their constituents? Designation as a critical access facility might have given the hospital vital government support by increasing the rate of Medicare reimbursement for services. This is especially important since 60 percent of NARH patients are covered by Medicare. (Eagle, March 30).

Without question, the leadership decisions of Northern Berkshire Heath Systems, Berkshire Health Systems, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and governmental officials were not intended to harm the employees of NARH and the good communities in Northern Berkshire County. Hopefully, a more financially stable hospital will rise in North Adams. Nonetheless, the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital has caused significant loss and uncertainty for hundreds in our community. Had the various leaders sought to make decisions based on what was best for all involved rather than simply advancing their own agendas, perhaps some of this hardship might have been avoided.

Aaron Sardell is a clinical psychologist.


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