Excuse abuse


Finger pointing sabotages even the best practice teams by wasting time, irritating clients, and breaking down team spirit. Here's how to stop the "it's not my fault" mentality.

Excuse abuse can spread through a practice like a lethal virus. Accusations and denials slow individual productivity to a crawl, and teamwork tumbles as synergy and camaraderie die out. Clients who simply want a straight answer don't get one, and worst of all, the veterinary team loses its focus on the health, happiness, and well-being of its patients. When excuse abuse hits, everyone suffers.

Four management principles you can not work without

Eliminating the "it's not my fault" mentality from a practice isn't easy. It's human nature to want to blame someone else when problems arise or something goes wrong. But there is a way to break the cycle. It starts by cultivating a new culture in your practice—one that promotes individual responsibility and self-improvement. It also means taking concrete steps to prevent mistakes, mix-ups, and miscommunication.

Whether you are a practice manager, head receptionist, or a respected member of the veterinary healthcare team, here's what you can do to stop excuse abuse from crippling your practice:

  • Seek to improve yourself first. As a practice leader, you need to become a living, breathing example of what you want the rest of the team to be. Your motto: "Do as I say and as I do." You set the tone for the rest of the staff, so be the first to admit, "I screwed up. Let's see how we can prevent this from happening again." Today's great leaders know how to combine old fashioned integrity with state-of-the-art management strategies to achieve maximum productivity—with minimum stress.

  • Step onto the front lines. The most dangerous course of action is to hide out in your little corner. You can't contribute effectively if you don't know what's going on in the rest of the hospital—and how will you know if you work in a vacuum? Instead, practice what best-selling author and business guru Tom Peters calls "management by walking around." Get an accurate picture of the work environment firsthand by using your eyes, ears, and heart to understand practice dynamics.

  • Consider the source. If you do hear about a practice problem second-hand, determine if your source is reliable before taking steps to correct the situation. Is this team member a chronic excuser or accuser? Or is this person a straight-forward, unblinking source of accurate, unbiased information?

  • Catch people doing things right. Go out of your way to publicly acknowledge a staff member who quickly responds to a problem or circumvents a potential disaster. Reward behavior you want to see repeated.

Ten characteristics of well-functioning teams

At the same time, draw less attention to harmless mistakes. Punishing team members for simple mistakes, like calling someone's pet 'she' when it's a 'he,' stifles initiative and creativity and builds resentment. Instead, adopt the philosophy that "we're only human." We're all bound to make mistakes—but let's learn from them and work hard to prevent those small blunders from recurring.

  • Give feedback not criticism. Criticism focuses blame and tears people down. It sounds something like: "You don't handle upset clients very well." Constructive feedback, on the other hand, focuses on the problem and builds people up: "When we don't listen attentively to clients' concerns, the problem tends to escalate. Here is what you can do to handle the situation better in the future."

Another tip: Wait for the teachable moment. Give positive feedback ASAP, but for constructive comments, practice "just in time" feedback. For example, if you want to coach a new receptionist on how to handle a phone shopper, give her the information she needs just before she sits down to take calls.

  • Build on staff members' strengths and interests. A team member who's passionate about homeless pets could coordinate the practice's efforts with area shelters, hospital pet adoptions, or abandoned animals. Learning people's interests and giving them ownership of a project or idea builds pride and will encourage them to take responsibility for the program's successes and setbacks.

  • Don't just listen to problems—ask for solutions. When co-workers come to you with a gripe, tell them to come back when they've worked up a potential solution. Team members will feel empowered to solve problems on the fly, and they will be less likely to come to you with the small stuff. This philosophy also emphasizes that you're not interested in hearing gossip and dispensing blame. Finding successful solutions is the ultimate goal.

  • Show that it's OK to say "I don't know, but I'll find out." Knowing that it's OK, staff members won't try to fake their way through an answer—and possibly jeopardize the health of a patient. Another benefit: When co-workers admit to clients that they're unsure and then go the extra mile to find a correct answer, pet owners will be impressed with your team's honesty, and they'll trust the information you give them.

  • Let staff members know they're never alone. Remember, there's no problem you can't solve as a team, and no single person needs to shoulder the burden of responsibility alone. When a problem arises, everyone on the healthcare team must be willing and prepared to take action to resolve the problem quickly and without assigning blame.

An effective, respected practice leader can stop accusers and excusers in their tracks, get staff members back on the road to personal responsibility, and put energizing light to the belief "All for one and one for all!"

Marty Becker, DVM, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, is a frequent writer and lecturer on management, motivation, and the celebration and protection of the family-pet-veterinary bond.

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