It's the things you don't say that can hurt your veterinary practice's health the most. Here are four symptoms to look for, along with tips to open up dialogue.
One of the most valuable communication lessons I've learned over the past 20-plus years is this: It's what we don't say that runs the show. Let me rephrase that: It's what we think we can't say for fear we'll get into trouble with the other person that runs the show—things that end up shaping our relationships in ways that are unhealthy for everyone involved.
No one enjoys confrontation or addressing the difficult issues that arise in a veterinary practice. Unfortunately, if we don't address these issues, they can lead to a severe case of constipated communication. The result is lethargic team members who feel alienated from one another—a formula for lowered productivity and profitability.
Constipated communication occurs at almost every veterinary practice, but it usually goes unrecognized until it's in the terminal stages. More often than not, we can trace the source of the problem back to the practice owner. A veterinary practice is like a living animal, and constipated communication really does make it sick. As with any disease, diagnosing constipated communication begins with the awareness that the condition exists. Then we check for the following clinical signs.
Mixed messages can be a sign of stuck communication, but mixed messages are also a root cause, especially when the messages come from the practice owner. For example, before becoming a life and business coach, I operated my small animal veterinary practice with an open-door policy. Unfortunately, through the years I unknowingly trained my staff to distrust my policy. I'd say, "Feel free to come talk to me about anything that's on your mind." But if employees came to me with a complaint, it was like they had to dismantle a time bomb. At any moment I might explode. I'd yell at them or I'd drag in the person they were complaining about so I could yell at both of them. "Don't ever do it again," I'd say, and they never would. My employees learned not to make the mistake of telling the boss when there was a problem.
If someone had an idea to improve the practice, I'd either give all the reasons the idea wouldn't work, or I'd tell them that I would think it over. They'd never hear another word about it. What I was really communicating was, "Why bother? I'll either yell at you or ignore you."
Does your practice have a healthy grapevine growing in it? Have you noticed that you can tell your veterinary technician something in confidence and your receptionist will know about it before you get back up front? Do your practice team members say they feel resentful, unimportant, unappreciated, or fearful because they're being excluded from certain conversations or the information running along the gossip grapevine is about them?
If you find yourself explaining this symptom away like I did by saying, "But people will always gossip," your practice is suffering from constipated communication.
If you were to step outside your practice for a moment and listen to the conversations inside, like listening to the heartbeat of a pet with a stethoscope, what would you hear? In a constipated practice, you'll hear a lot of complaining, especially when the practice owner isn't around.
Have you ever walked into a room and noticed that team members suddenly stop talking? Or maybe there's an uncomfortable silence before someone comes up with a safe subject to talk about? Do you notice people complaining to other people who can do nothing about the problem or about other people when those people are not present? These are all symptoms indicating that communication in your practice is stuck.
This is perhaps one of the most common symptoms of a practice with stuck communication and the most difficult to see unless you can take an objective look. One thing you can count on: people will communicate. If they don't feel it's safe to say what's on their mind, they'll find other ways to communicate, especially when they're upset. Here are some of the common ways covert communication shows up:
> Showing up late for work regularly. It may be only 10 or 15 minutes, but it's often.
> Calling in sick a lot, despite all appearances of physical health. This especially happens when you need that particular team member the most.
> High turnover rate. It may seem like about the time you get someone trained, he or she invariably leaves to work at another veterinary hospital down the street and you never know why he or she decided to leave.
> New employees who start out motivated and committed to doing a great job but who, within a few weeks or months, start to operate like everyone else—doing just enough to get by.
Constipated communication is curable, and becoming aware that the condition exists in your practice is a big step to achieving that cure. It's also helpful to look at what role you've played in its development.
Just like the condition of constipated communication doesn't rear its head overnight, correcting it will take time. Here are some steps you can take to bring your team's communication into healthy regularity by creating a safe environment for communication at your practice.
Hold regular staff meetings. Depending on the severity of the condition, you may need to schedule weekly or twice-monthly meetings. Be sure to include time for suggestions as well as authentic acknowledgment of what's already working well in the practice.
Maintain an open-door policy. Not like the one I trained my staff to ignore, but one where you encourage people to come to you with suggestions, problems, and ideas. Practice your listening skills and maintain an open mind. If you notice you're starting to take the conversation personally, step back and look at the broader picture by stepping into the shoes of the other person.
Bring back the suggestion box. It's important to read and discuss the suggestions that people place in it, whether they're from staff members or clients. A suggestion box can be a wellspring of ideas for improving your practice as well as provide shy people with an easier way to communicate.
Ask the right questions. Ask yourself and your staff members the right questions to gain insight into what's been causing the communication issues. This will lead to opening the channels of communication in healthy ways.
Unfortunately, even if you do manage to cure your practice's case of constipated communication, the condition can return. If you relax your diligence in this area, communication will start becoming clogged again. Set up some structure for regular checkups to be sure communication remains open. It might be a staff meeting at least once a month where the sole purpose is to have everyone communicate concerns and complaints. Whatever you decide, regular attention is essential or you'll wake up one morning with a very sick practice again.
As the leader of your practice, you have a number of relationships with other people: your staff members and clients. If you commit to opening up the communication in your practice, it will have a ripple effect in all aspects of your life, as well as your staff members'. You shouldn't be surprised if one day an employee comes to you and tells you the difference that working in your practice has made in his or her marriage. By then, it's likely you'll have already noticed it in your own life outside of work, too.