Somewhere along life's road, you've probably heard this pearl of advice: “Nobody likes a know-it-all.”
Although that well-worn wisdom is true everywhere, it is especially true in the hustle and bustle of a busy decontamination room or in the midst of a teeming prep-and-pack area. In fact, all sterile processing professionals, whether they are brand-new technicians or seasoned leaders, should realize that acting like or claiming that they know everything is not only wrong-headed, it is potentially dangerous.
Early Warning Signs: Are You Teachable?
From the moment new technicians start orientation in a central sterile (CS)/sterile processing department (SPD), they also are starting to build their reputations as either teachable coworkers or hard-headed know-it-alls. Department educators and preceptors can identify these “reputation types” quickly after a training program has begun. New hires who make too many assumptions about how or why the job is done certain ways can give off signals that they are less interested in learning and more interested in doing it the way they think is best—even with the limited information they may possess.
When sterile processing trainers feel like they have a know-it-all in their midst, continuing to encourage and correct the new hire can be very difficult, sometimes as a result of sheer frustration from not being listened to throughout the orientation process. Depending on the mix of personalities in the department, some new-hire know-it-alls can unintentionally isolate themselves from any kind of corrective feedback or constructive criticism that others might have been willing to give them. When this happens, a new hire can be dangerously unequipped and unaware of their insufficient knowledge regarding department processes.
Once Upon a Time, I Knew
However, new hires are not the only ones in danger of not knowing how little they really know. Despite having a few years of work under their belts and perhaps a sterile processing certification or two, experienced frontline employees also can catch the dreaded know-it-all disease. At one time, these employees may have felt like they were at the top of the department food chain; everyone looked to them for advice. They fielded questions such as “What is this clamp called?” and “Where is that tray located?” They really did know more about the department and its processes than anyone else.
The problem is that learning in sterile processing is much more than a one-and-done endeavor. It's not like getting a driver's license, where the rules of the road stay more or less the same throughout one's lifetime. Industry insights, guidelines, and improvements are constantly changing. Equipment is being updated and technology is disrupting; therefore, someone who knew a lot about sterile processing 10 years ago but knows little about what has happened since is no longer the expert they once thought they were. Although that person's department may not have changed much in a decade, the world outside certainly has.
Alone on a Leadership Mountain
Frontline staff are not the only ones who can struggle with assuming they have a monopoly on sterile processing knowledge. Sometimes, the know-it-all syndrome can strike department managers and directors just as deceptively. In this scenario, a leader may come to believe that a mere title and office equals subject matter expertise in the realm of cleaning, disinfection, and sterilization. After all, they are the CS/SPD manager, so they must have all the answers, right? And what they decide should always be considered the correct conclusion—isn't that true? These misconceptions sometimes are magnified by other hospital leaders who expect and treat the CS/SPD manager as if they really do know everything about this complex and ever-changing industry.
Sterile processing leaders who let their position, title, or reputations go to their heads can put themselves and their departments in a potentially dangerous situation. Leaders who feel they can never be wrong are unable to evolve. Learning from their mistakes is not possible if they are incapable of acknowledging that they make mistakes. Leaders who can't or won't learn will be unable to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation and change that defines the sterile processing industry. And if a leader cannot keep up, their department will suffer as a consequence.
How to Re-Engage and Grow
So, what is the answer? How do we rescue ourselves, our coworkers, and our departments from the scourge of sterile processing subject matter snobbery? The answers are simple, yet profound: We must recover the virtue of professional humility and commit to continually and truly learning from each other every day. In a world where professional distinction is lauded and resumes are built on flashy buzz words such as “expert” and “thought leader,” the foundational concept of professional humility remains the great differentiator between industry leaders and mere charlatans.
A technician who is willing to learn has no barrier to how far and how fast they can grow. A leader who is willing to listen has no limit to the number of lives they can influence in a positive way.
The opportunities and outlets available to CS/SPD professionals who possess a lifelong commitment to learning are growing rapidly. In addition to industry guidelines, regional conferences, sterile processing periodicals, and even podcasts, our greatest asset for knowledge and insight are our people—the folks on the other end of the phone when you call a vendor hotline or at the other end of the table when you invite another manager out for lunch. When two people can humbly open up a dialogue with each other—without any pretense or self-importance, for the sole purpose of sharing their passions for sterile processing excellence—entire industries can be changed. To win the battle for patient safety and safe surgical instruments, we need departments full of people who know what they do not know and are willing to do something about it.