Adjusting a bad-attitude team in equine practice


When team members go from rolling with the punches to rolling their eyes, don't ignore it.

THEY THINK YOU DON'T NOTICE. THEY DO IT RIGHT AFTER you turn away. But you see it. The dreaded eye roll—the ultimate body language sign of irritation, annoyance, and discontent. Why has your trusty assistant or loyal receptionist resorted to this behavior? And why haven't you noticed it before?

(© Hayes)

An eye roll may not be the only trouble sign. If your team truly is unhappy, you'll start to pick up on other clues. (See "Don't Ignore These Signs" of this equine section for more.) It's time to take stock of the situation—quickly.

Taking stock: Do not ignore these signs

So here's the million-dollar question: Why is your team unhappy? First, take a look at the dynamic of the team:

  • Do team members understand how you want them to do things?

  • Does everyone know their role and how they contribute to the overall success of the practice?

  • Do team members feel supported by the rest of the group?

  • Do team members know what you expect of them?

  • Do they know what co-workers expect of them?

  • Do they understand the hierarchy in the practice?

  • Do they know who the leaders are, who's there to support them in doing a good job, and who in turn relies on them?

  • Do they know they're an important asset to the practice and that they're valued for the job they do?

All of these issues combine to determine the group dynamic. And if something happens to disrupt it, you'll feel the shift, says Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer, a California-based equine management consultant. A first indication of trouble may appear as either a sense of disengagement or as an increase in conflict among team members. Conflict can also develop between the team and the leader.

The bottom line

Diagnose the problem

So you've noticed a change in the team dynamic. Now what? "Think about this as if it were a medical problem," O'Driscoll-Packer says. "You want to diagnose the situation, create a treatment plan, monitor progress—through observation and participation—and follow up with rechecks."

Before you approach your team, think about what has changed at your practice recently. For example, these changes can cause disruptions:

  • Adding a new doctor or another layer of management.

  • Hiring somebody with a strong personality who changes the dynamic or splits the group.

  • Adding additional team members. When team members' duties are in concert it's easy for everyone to stay in the loop. If your team gets larger, sometimes you split into departments with more specialized roles and suffer communication breakdowns.

  • Losing a key team member. Even if an employee doesn't hold a leadership title, a dramatic disruption can result if he or she set the tone or kept the team in rhythm.

  • Adding to the workload. Perhaps your practice is short-staffed and you're actually noticing the signs of burnout. If employees are showing up late, taking a lot of sick days, or more reluctant to cover each other's shifts, they may be experiencing fatigue. The bottom line: Many factors can affect your team's dynamic.

Create a treatment plan

Now that you've focused in on the source of unhappiness, gather your team together to talk about the situation. And try not to be too intense in your approach. Instead, start by asking team members questions about how the team has—and hasn't—been working. O'Driscoll-Packer says these questions will help you ease into the discussion and unearth the root of your team's unhappiness:

  • What do you find most satisfying about your job?

  • What do you find the least satisfying, or most difficult, about your job?

  • If you could make one change in how we work together or how we run things, what would it be?

  • What do you think we could do as a team to improve the working environment? (This is a great way to ask the question without completely handing over the reins of the discussion to the group, O'Driscoll-Packer says.)

Now, be prepared. Your team might not be forthcoming. Personnel problems, particularly those dealing with morale, can't be solved during one meeting. Your primary goal is to get this message across: You recognize the team isn't as strong as it needs to be and you're committed to addressing the problems and participating in the solutions. You'll want to open the conversation with some questions and observations. Then you need to listen.

Pay attention to the tone of the meeting itself. This is an indicator of the group dynamic. Leadership requires balance in your communication. No lectures or therapy sessions. Focus on the purpose of the team and the role each member plays in contributing to practice objectives. Stay on message, O'Driscoll-Packer advises. Let your team know that what they do is important.

The work and the team that performs it both require and deserve respect and commitment. Tell your team that you're all going to work together to solve the problem. If you aren't getting any answers, follow up with a few more specific questions:

  • Do you know what's expected of you each day?

  • Does everybody here have a good sense of what his or her job is?

  • Do you know who to go to if you need help with a task or a problem?

Keep in mind that you don't want to turn this into 100 questions. You want to create dialogue. If you stall out, put a couple of questions out there to stimulate the discussion again. If you need to, you can always direct a question to somebody in the meeting who's usually more forthcoming. Just remember to listen and not to jump to conclusions.

If a team member is the problem

Your team probably won't be candid with you in this meeting if they're unhappy because of another team member—especially if that person's above them in the hierarchy, such as a new doctor. If that's your hunch, don't rush to get everyone together; instead, ask team members questions here and there casually to flesh out your theory. "Do a little more investigating before you really step forward and begin to address the situation," O'Driscoll-Packer says.

If it becomes apparent that there's a central figure at the root of your team's unrest, you'll have to navigate the issue with respect for all involved. If this team member isn't blending into the dynamic because he or she is in the wrong role, hasn't been properly trained, or doesn't have a good understanding of expectations, there may be hope, O'Driscoll-Packer says. You can fix those problems.

But if you realize a team member doesn't fit because he or she wasn't the right choice for the practice, you need to deal with the situation sooner rather than later if you want to stop the erosion of your team. "If you give employees everything they need—training, support, and mentorship—and they still don't assimilate, let them go," O'Driscoll-Packer says. "You need to make a good faith attempt to help people succeed. But as soon as you know it's not working, you need to take action."

Light at the end of the tunnel

Some situations are tougher to fix than others, O'Driscoll-Packer says, and it takes work, acknowledgment of the problem, and commitment from the entire team to make a change. But you can find a way back into the rhythm your team used to enjoy.

Your goal is to make sure team members stay positive and focused. The key is to stay in tune day to day.

  • Do you feel a sense of energy and enthusiasm?

  • Do you contribute to it?

  • Do team members demonstrate a sense of humor and concern for patients and clients?

  • Are they anticipating the next appointment and looking to see that things are prepared?

You don't want to put everybody under a microscope—people are living their lives at work. Everyone has good days and bad days, so don't read too much into the small bumps of life. "But if you stay in contact with your team," O'Driscoll-Packer says, "you can sort of feel the tide turning."

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