FORT WORTH, Texas — If there was a central theme that resounded among the 3,400 nurse leaders attending Day 2 of the American Organization of Nurse Executives’ annual meeting, it would be "connection."

From Anton Gunn, chief diversity officer and executive director of community health innovation at Medical University of South Carolina, who urged providers to close the gap in care disparities among races, to Press Ganey Chief Nursing Officer Christine Dempsey who reminded attendees to include empathy exercises in their staff training, speakers hammered home the message that if you can bond with your patients — and likewise, your colleagues — you can elevate the value of your care.

As Gunn put it, “We’re not just in medicine; we’re in social work.”

Yet, for a group that’s known for being “solvers and probers,” soft skills don’t always come naturally to the job, Dempsey said. For example, recent nursing school graduates tend to excel at electronic documentation and social media, but “when you sit them across the bed from an 80-year-old sick person, they don’t know how to connect.”

This is where leadership can change the game. Management can transcend platitudes about the role of patient outcomes in HCAHPS scores and arm their teams with actionable strategies for how to truly engage, speakers said.

“As leaders, we have to make sure we know what the [HCAHPS] scores are, because they drive reimbursement,” Dempsey said. “But as leaders, it’s our job to translate that score into meaning, and tangible and tactical examples of how to improve the patient experience at the bedside.”

To show what she meant, Dempsey played nurse to an audience member’s patient, spending about 90 seconds making conversation. While brief, those 90 seconds allowed the two to forge a bond. Because of that connection, “you will likely tell me something that you might not have told me if I hadn’t given you the opportunity,” Dempsey explained. “And that information will let me take better care of you.”

Of course, that empathy needs to be applied to staff relationships, too. Joe Tye, a values-based leadership coach for hospitals, talked about an employee's sense of belonging, recognition and ownership in his or her job as “invisible architecture” that was “more important than bricks and mortar in patient safety” and advocated for a work environment in which leaders “simply don’t tolerate toxic emotional negativity.” In his quest for a more empowered and engaged team, nursing leader Bob Dent, R.N., senior vice president, COO and CNO at Midland Memorial Hospital in Midland, Texas, helped to implement The Pickle Pledge, in which employees participated in a pickle-jar decorating contest, then would “put a pickle in the pickle jar” as punishment for gossiping or complaining excessively. These visible, symbolic actions did wonders for eliminating emotional negativity, Dent said, as well as created a common language among the staff.

“It made us accountable for each other to create a positive workplace environment,” he said.

Tye said that staff culture should be the first area leaders evaluate to enact change. “If we can create a positive culture, we can deal with everything else far more effectively,” he said.