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Are You a Transformational or Transactional Nurse Leader?

Every employment situation represents a transaction. As an employee, you exchange performance for certain rewards, like salary and benefits. The transactional nature of employment exists whether you are a nurse or a barista, and this will never change.

But today’s nurse managers can look to a leadership style beyond the mere transaction. Transformational nurse leadership can elevate a department from competent to extraordinary. Enhancing your transformational leadership skills can lead to improved morale, better nurse retention and even better patient outcomes.

What is transactional leadership?

In the traditional model of nurse management, supervisors use a punishment and reward system to maintain a type of status quo in the department. For instance, nurses who call off sick too often may receive a written reprimand (punishment), while a nurse who never takes a sick day may earn the use of a prime parking spot for a month (reward).

In order for this type of system to work, transactional nurse leaders must constantly identify deficiencies in an employee’s performance – not to punish the employee, necessarily, but to help them improve their care delivery. After all, if you don’t know where your deficiencies lie, how can you correct them? You may have noticed, in fact, that standard performance evaluations are structured around a transactional style of leadership. These instruments identify areas where an employee’s performance can improve.

Transactional leadership has its place in nursing management. Its problem-solving orientation can lead to reduced errors and a systematic, evidence-based approach to care delivery. However, it may not be the best leadership style for creating a work environment that inspires and motivates great performances from employees.

What is transformational leadership?

While transactional leadership seeks to punish and reward, transformational nurse leadership aims to inspire and motivate. Departments with transformational leaders often develop a reputation for high nurse satisfaction and morale, along with exceptional patient care. Transformational nurse leaders act as coaches and mentors to their staff people and foster a climate of personal development.

Transformational leadership does not make departmental problems go away, of course. But when issues arise, transformational nurse leaders do not seek answers that strive to maintain the status quo, as transactional leaders do. Instead, transformational leaders use of creative problem-solving skills to question the status quo and to re-frame complex problems from a new angle. This method often results in novel solutions that benefit multiple constituencies: employees, managers and patients.

Developing the perfect blend of leadership styles

Transactional leadership skills can be crucial in a crisis, such as averting a potential sentinel event in your department. If you supervise a nurse who makes too many medication errors, for example, you must use transactional skills to point out the deficiency and invoke some sort of punishment if it is not corrected. Patient safety demands this type of approach.

But looking at the larger departmental picture, you can also blend in more transformational leadership skills to foster a team spirit and coax high performances out of your staff nurses. The best transformational nurse leaders first transform themselves by cultivating an enthusiastic and optimistic work personality. They make themselves highly visible on the unit, and they role model creative problem-solving skills as a way to encourage their subordinates to do the same.

Become the manager all the nurses want to work for

A blend of transactional and transformational leadership styles can lead to improved patient outcomes, but transformational nurse leaders often are the managers that other nurses want to work for. Transformational leaders tend to be personable and invested in their employees’ growth and development. As a transformational nurse leader, you can inspire great performances every day, along with creating a work environment that nurses leap at the chance to join.

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