Empowerment doesnt work on autopilot


Veterinary teams can run so smoothly it can feel like theyre on control, but managers need to stay in the drivers seat and keep one hand on the wheel for success.


Empowered employees feel valued and invested in the practice. They'll stay forever and work tirelessly for the good of the practice. But what happens when it all goes wrong? How can this well-intentioned philosophy inspire a staff rebellion? Empowerment without accountability is a disaster waiting to happen.

It's easy to mess up empowerment. It's a gamble, giving a team the freedom to act on behalf of the practice. Practice owners are horrified at this prospect because their professional lives are on the line.

Sadly, empowerment is one of those soft skills often honed during hard times. To be successful, the practice needs set procedures, its managers need emotional intelligence and everyone needs a culture-based mindset.

New managers should learn these techniques early in the hopes of preventing turmoil down the road. Regrettably, most of us learn these skills the hard way, when we find that instead of creating cohesive teams we created a revolving door of team turnover and perpetual training.

Let's take a look at a tale of two teams for some insight into the dark and seedy side of empowerment-and how to fix it.

An empowered empire

This is the tale of an empowered team. They were so empowered they were basically operating on cruise control. Everyone had a say and everyone had a vote. Everyone was happy, everything was running smoothly and no one was complaining. Dream come true, right? It was, until it wasn't. Over time the dynamic began to shift. 

The group separated into individuals who got territorial about their jobs, departments and relationships with leaders. Individually they viewed themselves as indispensable, to the point that they believed the practice would cease to run without them. They plotted to displace team members and rise in the management ranks. Cliques formed and gossip reigned. Becoming the practice owner's favorite became the goal. To that end, they hoarded knowledge from with new hires, and training suffered. There was zero effective communication, and in the end patient care suffered, clients felt discouraged and mistakes happened.

The culture of divisiveness had a firm foothold and spread like a disease. How does the story end? Painfully. Everyone quit. The team had to be rebuilt.

Let's look at our other team. 

The flipside

The other empowered team could drive themselves, but the manager kept one hand on the wheel. They held regular meetings and accountability checks. The team valued communication. They defined the practice hierarchy to new hires during onboarding. They rewarded and encouraged sharing ideas and knowledge. They gave feedback regularly to all team members about their performance on the team and within the team. They clearly outlined expectations and retaught when needed.

What was the result? The group encouraged growth and knowledge sharing, and they celebrated success. Everyone was valuable, and they knew it. Everyone was officially “a keeper of information.” This meant new hires were successfully onboarded into the practice culture, and training was effective-and shorter. When team members had questions, they knew the steps to follow and who to ask to get answers. This left the practice owner free to practice medicine and to work on the business of the practice. And the practice manager was free to deal with practice matters. So, mistakes happened less often, and steps existed to correct them quickly.

How does this team's story end? It doesn't. The team members stayed. The ones who did eventually leave left for personal reasons. Was it perfect? No. It required nurturing and work, but everyone was committed to its success.

Empowerment doesn't mean “set it and forget it.” True empowerment allows the freedom to act on behalf of the practice within the proper guidelines. The biggest factor in the success of this philosophy is consistency. Owners and managers must hold themselves accountable to the culture and to each other to earn the team's respect. If this principle is only applied to certain people at certain times, well, don't forget what happened to the first team.

If you recognize the first team more than the second, then you may be struggling with an empowerment backfire situation. Take control of the wheel and start changing course. Start establishing boundaries, setting accountability checkpoints and enforce them consistently. It's a slow process getting to the rebellion phase of empowerment, and it's never too late to reverse course and fix it!

Rhonda Bell, CVPM, is the practice manager at Talega Animal Hospital in San Clemente, California.

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