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Essential Communication Tips to Excel as a New Nurse Leader

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated March 10, 2023
    First-time nurse leaders may struggle in their new role. These 21 tips can help leaders successfully face these challenges and create a strong team.

    If this is your first time in a nurse leadership role, congratulations on being promoted! All your work has paid off, and you now have your own team. With promotions come challenges for new nurse leaders, including:

    • Communication problems
    • Budgeting concerns
    • Cultural differences
    • Staffing issues

    The foundation to each of these challenges is knowing how to communicate. You can successfully overcome nearly every predicament by listening intently, asking the right questions, and setting proper boundaries.

    Nurse leaders play a key role in integrating and implementing creative solutions to common problems, such as addressing nurses’ mental health. We asked two nurse leaders for their communication tips and to share their experiences to help new ones take on this challenging role.

    On this page, we separate communication tips into critical categories. You can also find leaders’ insights and advice for nurses in management positions.

    Nurse Leaders Offer 21 Tips for Effective Communication

    Nurse leaders are in a unique position within the healthcare system. They are at the hub of nurses’ patient education and care, nursing staff, hospital administration, and the community. It is essential to have effective communication skills to develop a well-run organization whose primary goal is excellent patient care.

    Tips for Effective Communication

    Even great listeners can improve their active listening skills. Active listening is when someone is involved in listening to what the other person is saying instead of passively letting the conversation pass you by.

    Active listening:

    • Respects the speaker
    • Requests clarification
    • Asks probing questions
    • Paraphrases what is said

    This indicates to the speaker that you have heard what they’re saying.

    Teresa Sanderson, RN, CCM, has spent most of her career in nursing leadership. She advises that all successful leaders clarify their expectations to their team, families, patients, and administration.

    “When the expectation of behavior or outcome is established before beginning a task (or starting a shift or starting a new day), everyone performs better,” Sanderson says.

    Assuming you know what the other person wants or is going to say is the root of many misunderstandings that can escalate to conflict. Active listening means waiting until you have all the information before formulating what you’ll say next.

    By repeating back what someone says to you, or seeking clarity on vague statements, you can avoid potential conflict that may arise when you make assumptions.

    Tough conversations arise as you take on more leadership roles. Recognize when you are feeling upset or reactive, so you don’t let your emotions take over the conversation.

    It is also crucial to admit when you are wrong. By admitting to your mistakes, you clear a path to moving forward and building trust with your team.

    New nurse leaders need to undergo appropriate training before taking on higher leadership roles. Marican Jhocson is the interim dean at Mervyn Dymally School of Nursing and has experienced the benefits of orientation. She stresses the importance of all nurse leaders undergoing diversity, inclusion, and social justice training.

    “As a result of the increasing importance related to issues such as diversity, inclusion, and the social justice conversation,” she says, “new nurse managers (and even the older ones) need to undergo training across all of these areas.”

    Try to get to the main point of your conversation quickly. No one likes sitting through long stories waiting for the main point. In other words, stay on message and avoid any rabbit trails, no matter how appealing they may be.

    Nearly 65% of all communication is nonverbal. Your listener is watching for clues that:

    • You are listening
    • You understand what is being said
    • You agree or disagree with the message

    Your body language is communicating, even when you aren’t speaking.

    Eye contact is also a form of communication. It can show empathy, trust, and attentiveness. However, it can also be misread. Prolonged staring can communicate hostility.

    When talking or listening, put down all electronic devices and keep distractions to a minimum. This demonstrates your commitment to the conversation and the other person’s importance.

    Tips for a Smooth Transition From Peer to Boss

    Although this may take time, it helps you to understand the frustrations and expectations of your individual staff members. It also gives you the chance to talk about your vision for the team and get their input.

    You may have known what the obstacles were when you were a staff member, but as a leader, it is important to listen intently to what the staff is battling.

    There has been a radical change in your status and how the staff has related to you. The uncertainty can be stressful. Let them know that your relationship with them matters, and you will have their back.

    The success of your team is due to the efforts of everyone on the team. It’s important you acknowledge the efforts of your former coworkers. This brands you as an authentic leader. Being a leader means more responsibility and greater service to others, not less.

    As a new nurse leader, don’t forget that you are still part of the team. You lead best when the staff respects your nursing leadership skills and recognizes that you understand their challenges. Empower your staff to come up with solutions, and be sure to be visible on the unit yourself, too.

    “Let your team see you interacting with staff, patients, and physicians,” Sanderson says.

    The No. 1 priority when you become a new nurse leader is to build trust with your team members. They are all watching your decisions and who you will become when you have more authority and control. In the first months, your goal is to show your staff you have their best interest at heart, including staff members who may have not been your biggest champion.

    Moving from peer to boss can be an awkward transition. However, the best way to lessen the awkwardness is to acknowledge it and recognize that your relationship with your peers has changed.

    “Understand that there will be times when your authority is tested,” Sanderson advises. “Be prepared to respond with integrity and professionalism.”

    People build better connections and greater respect for those they know, like, and trust. You are still the same person you were before your new title. Sanderson advises you to remain true to yourself.

    “Be willing to acknowledge that you don’t know everything, but you’re willing to find out,” Sanderson says.

    There are many benefits to saying something positive to your staff. Unfortunately, the days get busy, and sometimes the only thing that gets your attention is when something goes wrong. Go out of your way to notice when someone does something well and commend them.

    Tips to Build Safe Relationships With Your Staff

    When you transition from a peer to a boss, your staff must have clear expectations. This helps build trust with staff members who may think you’ll treat some nurses better than others. Set boundaries for everyone involved.

    Similar to expectations, you must treat the staff as a cohesive unit without creating favorites.

    This means that you can’t have relationships with the staff as a nurse leader in the same way you did before the promotion. You can still have fun with your staff, but your behavior must communicate that you are now the boss. While challenging, it also helps develop an environment where performance reviews and disciplinary actions are not more awkward than they already are.

    “The nurse manager should establish guidelines for when and how to be contacted after hours,” Sanderson says.

    Under stressful conditions and long hours, it’s easy to imagine that the boss treats some nurses better than others.

    “It is also important to maintain impartiality among team members to eliminate the appearance of favoritism,” Sanderson advises.

    Some of your former peers may have been close friends. It is important that you separate your friendships from your staff.

    “First of all, you cannot be personal, meaning you have to separate your work relationships from personal friends,” Jhocson says.

    Of course, it’s essential to be friendly and authentic. It is also important to never cross the line with your staff as it gives the impression you are not impartial. This sets up a situation where conflict can escalate, and the team can suffer.

    How to Overcome Obstacles Faced by New Nurse Leaders

    Nurse leaders face common obstacles when they accept a new leadership position. No matter how many times a nurse is promoted up the ladder, the people they once called peers will now be reporting to them.

    When a nurse leader gets push back from peers they once worked alongside, Sanderson suggests the new nurse manager privately meet with the person involved to discuss the inappropriate behavior.

    From here, you can create a plan for working together and set a precedent for how conflicts will be handled. Addressing little challenges immediately helps keep them from growing and lets your team know that you are confident in your leadership role.

    One way that your staff may test your authority is to feel pressured into making a quick decision. However, as Sanderson notes, this is the time to slow down and gather as much information as possible. Take the time to ask others for advice before moving forward.

    “Your decisions matter to the patients you serve, your team members, and your organization,” Sanderson says. “Take the time you need to make them wisely.”

    Nurse leaders must also be well versed in recognizing and implementing strategies to improve diversity, inclusion, and social justice. This helps nurse leaders get exposed to the community, learn about their community’s needs, and better meet the needs of a diverse staff. This is especially important in any population you have not had significant contact with.

    “If you’re working in a hospital setting that is underserved, with the patients you get, you learn from them, and you become sensitive to them,” Jhocson says.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Teresa Sanderson, RN, CCM, Nurse Entrepreneur Preceptor

    Teresa Sanderson, RN, CCM, Nurse Entrepreneur Preceptor

    Teresa Sanderson is a veteran registered nurse with more than 30 years of experience. She is a certified case manager, a certified BANK ios coach, and has owned and operated a hospice agency and adult group homes. She has spent much of her career in nursing leadership and administration. She teaches nurse leaders and healthcare professionals how to improve communication and increase understanding so they can create a positive workplace.

    Portrait of Marican C. Jhocson, MSN, APRN, NP-C, LNC, Interim Dean, Assistant Professor, Mervyn Dymally School of Nursing of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science

    Marican C. Jhocson, MSN, APRN, NP-C, LNC, Interim Dean, Assistant Professor, Mervyn Dymally School of Nursing of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science

    Marican C. Jhocson is assistant professor and interim dean at Charles R. Drew University. She is a California board registered nurse and family nurse practitioner. Her work has been published on a range of topics including the “Effectiveness of Nurse Practitioner Faculty Practice” and “Predictive Examination: Are They Truly Reflective of the Pass Rate for the NP.” She has received grants from the Song-Grown Grant for Family Nurse Practitioner — Primary Care Education and Telehealth.