Nurse leadership: 4 strategies to positively lead through change

5 min read


If you’re a nurse leader, you know that change is constant in healthcare. Changes can be externally driven, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or they may stem from internal efforts, such as:

  • Decreasing infection rates
  • Improving patient satisfaction
  • Curbing department spending 
  • Allocating staff and resources more efficiently 

You can be confident that your leadership initiatives will produce positive results if they are fully embraced by your team. However, there is the possibility of employee resistance. In fact, research shows that 70% of change initiatives fail — often because of employee resistance. 

Getting employees to welcome change isn’t always easy and can be intimidating. Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate it alone. 

Through OpusVi’s Certificate in Nurse Leadership with Duke CE, you can help your team to accept change and improve as a whole. The program utilizes the revolutionary Kotter’s 8 Step Framework for Accelerating Change. 

As a charge nurse, I have participated in OpusVi’s Nurse Leadership Program. I’ve also successfully used Kotter’s framework to plan new initiatives and communicate them to my team. Here are four key strategies I have learned from this groundbreaking approach.

1. Demonstrate empathy 

Change often provokes fear and apprehension. As humans, we’re more comfortable with what we know, even if it might not be best for us. It’s important to understand the attachments your team may have with current processes. 

As you’re planning how to share proposed changes with your team, add compassion into your message by:

  • Telling your team what will remain unchanged, in order to keep a sense of familiarity
  • Emphasizing that you’re open to suggestions regarding the initiative
  • Sharing the resources that will be available to facilitate the change

In a fast-paced field such as healthcare, it’s common for teams to have change thrust upon them suddenly and unexpectedly. Unfortunately, this can lead to a team that feels undervalued and unheard. To prevent this, be sure to keep your team’s morale in mind when building your initiatives. Empathize by assuring that you will be walking through the changes with them.

2. Prepare and expect to succeed

In OpusVi’s Nurse Leadership Program, I learned that up to 50% of change projects fail in the first phase of planning. While this statistic may appear discouraging, the good news is that with a clear vision, a coalition, and a sense of urgency, your change project has a greater chance of success.

A clear vision

What do you want to accomplish with your initiative? The more detailed your objectives are, the easier it will be to communicate them to your team. Don’t forget to explain the benefits of achieving these objectives, so employees will see a reason to be invested. If you’re unsure of your plans, consult with someone unrelated to your initiative. Obtain feedback to be sure your message regarding the change will be clear and concise to the team.

A coalition

It’s unlikely that you can carry out this initiative without the help of key colleagues. For example, to drive down infection rates, you may need to collaborate with the infection prevention team in your hospital as well as a group of physicians. Ensure everyone in your coalition is on the same page, so once the initiative rolls out, the expectations remain consistent.

A sense of urgency

Your message should be compelling, easy to understand, and there should be no question as to its importance. When your team understands the gravity of the initiative, they will be more motivated to act sooner rather than later.

3. Engage and empower your team

Employee engagement requires constructive, two-way communication

Ask your team members for their opinions during formal meetings and one-on-one chats. Through these conversations, you may realize other ways of reaching your initiative’s goals. Further, you’ll be able to address roadblocks early in the process. 

Maintaining employee engagement is critical to a successful change project. If the initiative is too physically, mentally, or emotionally draining, frustration and burn-out are inevitable. As a nurse leader, closely monitor these areas and make adjustments to intervene before disengagement occurs.

Equally critical to success with change is taking note of any staff limitations. For example, if your team is facing a staffing shortage, address that issue prior to implementing the change effort. Also, schedule regular check-ins with your team to ensure they have the resources they need to make the project a success.

4. Sustain and reward efforts

According to OpusVi and Duke CE’s Nurse Leadership Program, it can take up to five years for a change to become sustainable. However, when your unit or healthcare organization has several initiatives running at the same time, it’s easy to lose track of what you started. 

To maintain focus:

  • Decide how often you’ll review the status of an initiative.
  • Invite your team members to attend the review sessions. 
  • Evaluate your team members’ progress and encourage their feedback. 
  • Reflect on what can be improved and what can be removed from the initiative. 
  • Implement whatever changes are needed to keep the project on a stable path.

An important aspect of sustaining an initiative is demonstrating appreciation to your team for their efforts. Celebrate and reward them for the contributions they’ve made to their unit and the organization. In doing so, you’ll secure their continued support in the current initiative and future endeavors. 


American management consultant Gary Hemel once said, “You can't build an adaptable organization without adaptable people — and individuals change only when they have to, or when they want to.” 

As a nurse leader, you can help your employees overcome their resistance and adapt to organizational change. The OpusVi Nurse Leadership Program is a good place to start.

Kara-Marie Hall RN, BSN,CCRN


Kara-Marie Hall RN, BSN,CCRN


Kara-Marie Hall RN, BSN,CCRN

Kara-Marie Hall RN, BSN,CCRN, is a healthcare freelance writer who converts her expertise as a registered nurse into polished prose that engages healthcare professionals and patients. She is a proud member of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses and the American Medical Writers Association. Kara-Marie’s interests include nursing leadership, health equity, and patient education. Her commitment to health and wellness stems from a deep desire to improve healthcare — one reader at a time. Currently, Kara-Marie resides in sunny Los Angeles, but calls her native Atlanta “home sweet home.” When she’s not working at the bedside or writing, she’s catching up on her favorite Spanish soap operas or volunteering with non-profits.