Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP
What are you waiting for? This advice for veterinary practice owners, managers and team members can help you start the challenging but inspiring journey to transform your hospitals culture from negative to positive.
metelevan/stock.adobe.comYou pull into the veterinary hospital parking lot and just sit there. Every ounce of you is dreading what you'll face today, which starts you crying. You feel exhausted, defeated and tired of the constant struggle.
I've walked a few miles in your shoes, and trust me; it wasn't easy dealing with demoralizing team members-from fake appointments being made so the outpatient team could finish their day early to team members hiding packing slips when I was inventory manager. They knew very well the stormy seas I had to traverse if I couldn't provide the packing slips to the bookkeeper.
Such malice inside the walls. I cried every single day as I drove to work. I would sit in my car, deciding whether I would try to make it through another day. Every “zone” in our practice was working against the others. We had technicians who thought they “did all the work” and “carried the entire practice.” They were better than everyone else because of their job title. Lodging staff was dominated by a tyrant; we were going through lodging staff as fast as you could blink.
These were some very, very dark days, and if you can identify with any of these issues, it's past time to do something about it. The best part is, you don't need to be the manager to make change happen. I personally have navigated the morale killers (or as we affectionately call it, drama) as both manager and team member. Let's get started.
If you're a manager…
You can expect this entire morale transformation process to take one to three years, depending on the size of your practice. Patience is key, and part of the process is a practice owner who will allow you to spread your wings and initiate change. I suggest starting the journey with these steps:
Educate the team on emotional intelligence. Reach out to sales reps and see if they'll support the purchase of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. This is critical to changing the morale and dynamics of your team. It truly helps each person understand their strengths and weaknesses and where they need to improve.
Want more on emotional intelligence (EQ)? Dive into…
• A practice manager who hates that “they didn't teach us emotional intelligence in veterinary school”
• More on the details and benefits: EQ: The soft skill that will harm your team if ignored
• A quick, unofficial self-test: What's your EQ?
We've been working on emotional intelligence in our practice for two years, and the change has been phenomenal. The feedback that my team gives each other because they truly understand how others tick is always constructive. On the flip side, the book also teaches team members how to take feedback and use it to their benefit, not take it as personal attack.
Evaluate your current staff. Pay attention, sit back silently and just watch the dynamic of workplace interactions. It's sometimes hard to see the toxic team member if you're not immersed in the day-to-day activities. Be present for at least a week, if not two. After all, everyone can behave for a couple days.
Start having regular conversations with each team member. Each of them needs a tangible guide to actions and goals for this big morale change. (I use this Performance Blueprint.)
Implement 360-degree evaluations. Not only can these be great for every team member, they are an instant gauge of the culture of the practice. These evaluations are not for ripping each other apart-they're for honest, constructive feedback. Make sure to set that expectation for the team. (Check out these articles for more on this.)
Zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior. This is going to take some perseverance on your part. The first few times you impose consequences, your team will be shocked because they're not used to being held accountable. Plus, team members can be combative. If this happens, read my article for communication tips for these tough conversations. Follow-through is an absolute must as it sets the example for the rest of the team. No more empty threats!
It took me two to three years of methodically holding staff accountable, encouraging them to move on if our practice wasn't the right fit anymore, and hiring new faces based on core values, not just skills on paper. We never looked back and will never tolerate morale killers again.
When you're just trying to keep your head above water each day, you don't see the effect bad morale has on clients and your bottom line, not to mention your coworkers. We saw a spike in revenue every time we made a big move within our team-and by big move, I mean when one of the morale killers either decided to move on or was forced to move on.
Now, what if you're just a team member? You can still make change happen …
If you're a team member …
Sure, trying to change things is scary, and you will absolutely get push-back from the “mean girls.” But at the end of the day, the team member who starts making these changes will be the one who sets the stage for the rest of the staff. I live by the motto “Forge your own path.” Stand up and make a difference!
Practice emotional intelligence. Buy your own copy of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, read it and practice it. Encourage others on the team to read it.
Request a meeting with the practice manager. Stick to the facts and leave your emotions out of it. I like to go into these meetings with a solid list. Advise the practice manager that you will be including them in conversations that you're going to have with team members whose behavior needs to be addressed. Don't be scared to be an advocate for others being mistreated on your team.
Don't just react to the “mean girl” mentality. Rise above. Reach a level of maturity and exercise zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Take five to 10 minutes to pull someone aside and initiate a conversation about the behavior they just exhibited. An example might start, “It makes me uncomfortable when team members are spoken down to. I am confident we would work better as a team if the interactions were more positive.”
Don't be completely shocked when the response you get is eye-rolling or huffing. In this moment your own study and practice of emotional intelligence will be handy. Don't get discouraged. Remember, they're the ones at fault, not the person addressing the issue.
Leave it at the door. Don't take stress home. I know, easier said than done, and I know I should take my own advice sometimes on this. But this is the healthy habit for all of us-you, me, our teams and our friends and family, who sometimes takes the brunt of it all. I keep a notebook where I make a list of concerns that still need to be addressed so I don't forget them. And it's shut at the end of the day. Tomorrow, I can jump back on that list. But not before.
Stay the course. It's vital to always do the right thing. This is a surefire way to stand out above your team members very quickly.
If you're feeling like your situation is hopeless at work and you want to jump ship-not so fast. I hate seeing the posts in Facebook groups complaining about team morale or how mean a team member is. The wakeup call is, change starts with you. Put some effort into making a positive change that will spread through the entire practice as well as other members of the team. It became my mission to improve team morale and make sure my colleagues never sat in their car, afraid to step in the door for another day at our practice.
Team morale is a domino effect. Unhappy team members work against each other and focus on drama instead of the pet or client in front of them. It's hard to go into an exam room and plaster a smile on your face when you know as soon as you walk out the door to the treatment area, that morale killer is going to have something smart to say to you.
Happy team members work seamlessly together and provide clients a good experience because they radiate happiness and empathy. It's a great feeling knowing that when you step out of the room, there's a team member with everything ready to go to help you. Clients can feel the tone of this practice, and happy team members equal happy clients.
You can do this. It's possible! I'm walking proof. We now ask this question in our interview process: “What did you dislike about your most recent job?” I am so over hearing the same answer: drama (which translates to bad morale).
Stop the madness, people. Veterinary hospitals don't need to run this way. And there's no better day to start changing it than today.
Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, is practice manager at Cleveland Heights Animal Hospital in Lakeland, Florida.