How to make your associates hate you


Watch how you treat your associates-you may be grooming them to resent you.

Not long ago, I was consulting at a veterinary hospital that had recently hired a new associate. It was her second day in the practice, and the owner was trying to follow through on his promise to provide a mentoring program. We were all in the exam room, the new associate and I observing while the practice owner conducted an exam. The patient had experienced an allergic response to something, and the list of possible diagnoses kept growing as the exam and discussion continued.

After the exam, the owner and new doctor sat down to discuss the case. The new associate excitedly offered her opinions on the allergy and a possible treatment. The owner responded with, "That's a bunch of crap you learn in school. In the real world we don't do those things."

I could see the associate's enthusiasm drain right out of her. The owner didn't respect her, nor did he express any desire to listen to what she'd learned from the rigorous study that had occupied the last four years of her life.

If you identify with the owner in this example and admire his management style, you're in luck. With this special offer, you'll be the promise-breaking, feedback-ignoring, associate-repelling boss you've always dreamed of becoming! Read on, and your associates will be quitting in no time.

1. Encourage your associates to participate in CE, but don't apply what they learn to your practice.

At a recent meeting, I sat next to an associate who had previously participated in one of my management classes. I asked her how things were going and, unfortunately, the answer was, "Not well." She told me she'd taken a job after interviewing at a number of practices. She believed she'd done a thorough job of interviewing and seeking a hospital that would match her needs. She was interested in acupuncture and chose to work at a practice that was willing to pay for her training and offer this service to clients.

But after she completed the training, the practice refused to purchase any of the necessary equipment or supplies and wouldn't schedule more than 15 minutes for an acupuncture appointment. To make matters worse, the other doctors in the practice didn't believe in alternative medicine and made fun of the associate behind her back. She was discouraged and upset. She later found out that the practice had been having a hard time finding an associate and had told her what she wanted to hear in order to recruit her. She soon began looking for another job.

2. Tell your associates about your plans to invest in the practice—then do nothing.

Practice owners often promise their newly hired associates that they're ready to "take the practice to the next level," but they don't always follow through. I've heard from many frustrated associates whose bosses said they had plans to remodel the building, upgrade the equipment, offer new services, or even build a new facility. Did they accomplish these goals—or even take steps toward them? No.

It's not that these owners are lying about their plans. It's that they're not communicating. Most of the problems I hear about could've been resolved through dialogue. The owner didn't communicate to the associate about why certain goals hadn't been achieved, and the associate became disenfranchised and left the practice. Perhaps the owner was struggling with financing, had received an inaccurate estimate or was even going through a divorce. Had the owner simply explained what was going on, the result might have been different.

Another frustration many associate doctors face is a lack of vision from the practice owner. Most associates want to know the future plans, goals, and direction of the practice. In fact, the entire practice team generally wants to know this information. So I encourage owners to share their vision with everyone in the practice, along with how each person can help the hospital reach its goals. Sharing benchmarks such as gross income compared with the previous year, the number of client transactions, the number of new clients, and average client transaction can help your team understand your goals and how well you're doing in achieving them.

3. Solicit feedback and advice from your associates, and then ignore everything they say.

Many practice owners are very good at getting input from their associate doctors but fail to use the feedback for constructive purposes. While you don't always have to do what others advise, you need to let them know why you chose a particular course of action. In a word: communicate! If you ask someone for their opinion, be prepared to also discuss with them your final decision and tell them how you reached it. If you fail to do this, employees will ask themselves, "Why does she bother to ask for my opinion when she never does what I suggest"?

4. Hover over your associates to watch for slipups.

We all make mistakes. In fact, this is how many of us learn. Unfortunately, some practice owners are so fearful of their associates making a mistake that they overcompensate and smother them. I've seen owners who review every patient record an associate handles and won't let her perform certain surgeries. Obviously, in a medical environment, you need to be careful, and you never want to put a patient at risk. But sometimes you need to give your associates enough freedom to make their own mistakes and learn from them. And when they do screw up, your response is one of the most important factors in the learning process. As a practice owner, the way you react to an employee's mistake and how you coach him or her through it may lead to that employee's ultimate success or failure in your practice. So think before you speak—making someone feel stupid or like a failure does no good. Use each mistake as an opportunity to teach that doctor and develop his or her competencies.

5. Don't worry about welcoming new associates to your practice.

It's every new associate's worst nightmare: The owner takes a two-week vacation during the new doctor's first two weeks at the practice. This is one of the worst mistakes an owner can make. The new associate's very first day in your practice sets the tone for future success, and you need to be there to welcome her and introduce her to all other team members.

The next several weeks and months are also pivotal to the associate's success in your practice. Have you established a mentorship program? If so, do you use it and abide by it, or do you just have a casual policy on paper? Use a three-or four-week training program for new associates, ensuring that you go over everything they need to know in order to be successful in your practice (see "Assimilate your associates").

Assimilate your associates

I also encourage owner-doctors to introduce the new associate to the practice's clients. When seeing a client, bring the new associate into the exam room and introduce her. "Mrs. Jones, I would like to introduce you to Dr. Stephens. Dr. Stephens has just joined our practice after graduating at the top of her class from ABC Veterinary School, and we're excited to have her on our team." Not only will this make Dr. Stephens feel good, but if you're unavailable the next time Mrs. Jones calls for an appointment, she'll be more likely to accept Dr. Stephens.

Owners, if your doctors are unmotivated, show little enthusiasm for practice, or decide not to buy into your business when you make them an offer, it may be time to make a change—unless your goal is to continue upsetting, annoying, and undermining your associates. Most of you, however, need high-quality associates who contribute to the mission of our practice. So take an introspective look at your management style, and make sure you're being the best boss you can be. You'll be giving well-deserved bonuses in no time.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Send comments to or post your thoughts on our message boards at

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