How we used team building exercises to improve our veterinary practice culture

December 11, 2018
Christina Gehring-Maples MPA, CVPM

Christina Gehring-Maples, MPA, CVPM, is the director of operations at Animal Therapy Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is a finalist in the 2018 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year contest.

By walking in each others shoes, we understand each other better.

Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.com

We experienced a period of transition when we had a lot of new hires who had little experience. The remaining senior members of the team were constantly training, and it was taxing on our practice culture. I adapted a “Walk a mile in my shoes” team meeting activity from an anti-bullying video I found on YouTube to use during one of our team meetings.

Before the meeting began I asked everyone on the team to write down one thing another team member does that brightens their day and one thing that brings them down. The instructions were specific: All responses would remain anonymous-both in who submitted it and who it was addressing-and there could be no foul language. The responses were supposed to be generalized in nature as well to maintain anonymity. I collected the responses directly to read aloud at the next staff meeting.

At the meeting, I asked everyone to line up in the middle of the room, standing side by side. I then told them to close their eyes as I read aloud a comment that “brightened” their day. If they agreed that it brightened their day, they were to step forward. By stepping forward, they were symbolizing that their day was moving forward in a positive way. If they disagreed, they were to stay where they were. After I'd read all of the positive comments, almost the entire team was at the same point in the front of the room. I told them to open their eyes, and they were all smiling and laughing about the positive outlook.

I then asked them to close their eyes as I repeated the process in reverse with the statements about things that “bring them down.” This time they were to take a step backward. By stepping backward, they symbolized that their day was moving backward and had a negative impact on their performance. If they didn't agree with the comment they stayed in place.

After reading all the statements, I again asked them to look around. The whole team was in about the same place at the back of the room. This time the atmosphere was dull and quiet.

The goal of the exercise was for individuals and teams on our staff to see how both negative and positive behaviors affect the team as a whole, but also for the entire team to hear specific behaviors that affected each other. Everyone had an opportunity to voice their opinion on behavior on both sides of the spectrum and feel “heard.”

The interesting part for me was to see the teams move backward simultaneously to the negative comments based on their position. Veterinary assistants, client service representatives and veterinary technicians all moved in unison with their respective team members. However, all the teams ended up in the back of the room by the end. Everyone heard their teammates' footsteps in unison, and it hit home. After the exercise, I saw team members show more understanding for those in other positions and increased cooperation between different roles.

Christina Gehring-Maples, MPA, CVPM, is the director of operations at Animal Therapy Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is a finalist in the 2018 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year contest.