Helping employees manage their emotions


Temper tantrums, dark clouds over heads, frowns that just wont turn upside down? Heres some advice on how to put the Partridge Family back into your veterinary practice, when all you hear is Black Sabbath.

Photo: Shutterstock.comDear Bash,

I have a receptionist that I need some help with. She's really great with clients, but when she gets overwhelmed, look out. She either shuts down completely or gets nasty and overbearing with her coworkers. When she gets in one of her moods, you can see it written straight across her forehead.

I try to give her the support she needs, but there's only so much I can do. We're just a very busy practice. I tell her, “Look, none of us like being busy. It's just the job.”

Tell me what I should do. I don't want to lose her, but frankly, none of us are sure we can put up with her much longer.

“None of us like it” … hmmm …

Boy, oh, boy, can I relate. In the 17 years that I was a receptionist, assistant, technician and manager, I was right there with you. Every day I stepped into work, flipped on the lights, turned on the computers and readied myself for what I hoped would be a splendid day. Then I turned the phones on and all hell broke loose.

I'm ashamed to admit that for years I just accepted this was how it was supposed to be. Customer service was paramount, so if the phone rang (and oh, did it ring!) and a customer wanted something, we fell over ourselves trying to provide it.

“I need to swing by and pick up some more thyroid pills for Firecracker, but I'm on my way to work and need them ready in about 10 minutes. Is that cool?”

“You bet.”

“Three of the cans of ID that you sold me have dents in them. This is the third time. I need to come over now and pick up another case.”

“Ahhh, no problem.”

“Arnold's ears are red again. Dr. Wilson says I can just come in and he'll take a quick look. Can you put me down for 9 a.m.?

“Okaaay ... I'm guessing that will be fine.”

I remember the sense that I was nearing my threshold-that if I had to remember one more thing, I'd snap. I hated the shame of failure. I hated when my employer called me out on a mistake, when I blundered in front of my coworkers or, worst of all, when I did something that harmed a patient or ticked off a client. If I felt that I was being stretched too thin and I was about to screw up, well, I got mad. I got mad because I thought I was going to fail.

If “none of you like it,” maybe it's wrong

Now, in my role as an advisor, I get to watch the operations of practices all over the United States My biggest takeaway is that most practices are trying to do too much with too little: too little staff or too little thought on how to improve efficiency. Every practice manager and owner should schedule one day this month to do nothing but observe the workflow of the practice. Show up at 7 a.m. and trail clients through the entire cycle of service. You'll find it one of the most illuminating things you've undertaken as a leader in years.

My point is this: your receptionist doesn't need me to fix her. She doesn't need an analyst or Valium or a vase of flowers with a card that says, “We appreciate you” (though that card wouldn't hurt). What she needs is a regular shot at succeeding at work.

What makes work enjoyable?

I conduct group surveys sometimes. I ask, “Tell me about the last time you had a really great day at work. Nothing generic, but a specific example.”

I should point out that too often there aren't a lot of hands that go up in the air, but when they do rise, responses typically fall into three categories:

I had a really great day at work because …

> I felt like I made a difference.

> A client, employer or coworker acknowledged me as great.

> We all worked really well together. We had fun.

It's interesting that in all the times that I've asked this question, no one has ever said, “We broke a sales record,” or “We made a lot of money,” or “Everyone paid their bill.”

We thrive on three things at work: recognition, living up to our own expectations for growth, and behavior and the satisfaction of doing work with people we like-of being on a team. It's our job as leaders to provide these opportunities for all of our employees as often as we can.

Helping employees change their attitude

Still, I don't want to write off your receptionist's behavior as OK. However well intentioned, people shouldn't be flying off the handle at work. Though I highly recommend that you use this particular employee crisis as a chance to review how you can improve your entire way of service, here are some additional tips you can employ while trying to manage employee behavior along the way …

Invite the employee to talk about the reaction or emotion in question. Listen. Acknowledge that you understand and legitimize their feelings, but only if you truly understand. If you don't understand yet, continue to ask questions without blame until you're able to better see their perspective.

In almost all cases, the employee's thoughts and reactions to a situation are within the spectrum of how others would feel and act, so if you're not seeing the other's perspective, it's probably because you're not fully aware of all the things affecting the employee. Continue to explore. That will improve your understanding of what's going on, increase the employee's trust in you and deepen the relationship that you have with each other.

Want to overcome a bad mood? Think differently

An important study conducted in 1990 showed that when we allow our minds to get mired in negative thinking, we undermine current and future performance and assure more negative outcomes. However, stopping negative thinking patterns can be challenging for people-especially those with a long history of the habit. It can really help to share alternative thinking patterns and reactions that might be more appropriate for everyone involved. Here are some ways to bust through negativity:

> Ask the employee to write out the negative thoughts and ask them to question whether what they've written is definitely true-or whether, instead, they're assuming things they don't know or guessing at others' feelings, etc.

> Invite the employee to say negative thought out loud to help see how preposterous or cruel they're being to themselves or others. The voice in our head can be bullying, delusional and sometimes outright hateful. Challenge that voice. Call thoughts out as lies or inappropriate or unhelpful to the situation, then collaborate on a more objective take on the situation.

For example, a negative thought could be, This day couldn't be worse! The objective thought might be, Actually, I've had one bad phone call and one bad interaction with a doctor, and both are to be expected from time to time in any work setting and in life. Bad phone calls and bad interactions with doctors can get me down or give me another chance to see if I can figure out a way to handle them effectively. I'm going to take the challenge and see if I can handle them effectively.

> Eat well and hydrate. Excess caffeine, alcohol and sugary snacks interfere with good cognitive functioning.

> Meditate. Invite the employee to listen to a meditation video on YouTube. Meditation has helped millions start to rewire their way of thinking.

> Exercise. Grab a patient and a leash and take a long, fast walk on your break.

> Breathe. Four deep breaths with seven seconds of inhalation through the nose and eight seconds of exhalation through the mouth are immediately calming.

> Encourage positive support from peers. Remind your team of the value of supportive chatter throughout the day. Coax people to say what they're probably already thinking:

“I really enjoy working with you.”

“Thank you for helping me.”

“I can always count on you.”

“You are great with clients.”

“I'm glad I work with you.”

“You're making my day.”

“I enjoy seeing you happy.”

Draw clear boundaries when it comes to civility and respect in the workplace. Don't shame the person if they've behaved badly in the past-we're all guilty of such actions-but make it clear that it's never OK to be uncivil or disrespectful to clients or coworkers.

Know what really gets under employees' skin. It's these problems: “My boss doesn't appreciate me” or, “My job won't allow me to succeed,” or, “I'm fighting with a coworker,” or, “I'm in danger of failing at my job.” Figure out whether any of these are at the root of why the employee is behaving poorly and see if you can help find a solution.

Don't expect miracles. Most people continue the same bad behavior patterns their entire lives. Don't focus so much on how people do things, but what they're doing. Grab a strong hold of your mission and ask if current employee efforts are working for or against it. Provided people are doing their best to move the practice in the direction of the mission, you should do everything you can as a leader to support them in their efforts and to optimize their performance. Yes, it's possible for you to take a stronger stand against behavior and thinking that's out of step with yours, but finding individuals who are willing to do the job we're asking them to do, for the money veterinary hospitals are willing to pay, are scarce. A more tolerant, creative approach to management and coaching may improve the current situation and prevent you from swapping one set of issues with a trained employee for a brand-new set of issues with an untrained one.

Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT, is a partner with Halow Tassava Consulting, a frequent speaker at the Fetch veterinary conferences and a regular contributor to and Firstline magazine.

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