Listening your way to discipline

November 15, 2019

A manager shouldnt jump from avoiding a difficult team member to disciplining and firing. You need to insert listening and sharing into your process, and the Exchange Strategy could help you do it.

Mary Swift/stock.adobe.comDo you have problems with one of your team members at your veterinary practice? If you're a typical manager or supervisor, you might be inclined to make a big mistake: avoiding the staff member's difficult behavior for as long as possible then switching suddenly to issuing disciplinary procedures or even firing without following progressive intermediate steps. It's understandable, because confronting, listening and problem-solving conversations can be challenging for everybody.

Conveniently enough, human healthcare has a helpful model for conflict management that could translate over to the veterinary profession: the National Conflict Resolution Center's “Exchange Strategy” (explained in book form here). These are three steps that seem basic but routinely get skipped in many frantically busy veterinary hospital workdays:

Step 1: Exchange information. This is an opportunity for the “difficult employee” to understand the impact of their behavior as well as an opportunity for them to share what happened in a particular incident from their point of view. Both the manager or supervisor and the difficult staff member share expectations.

Step 2: Review what was learned. The employee and the manager digest findings from the first step and prepare for the discussion in Step 3. It can be helpful for this step to be done with both parties.

Step 3: Exchange understandings. The manager and the team now exchange understandings related to what action or behavior is needed to resolve the problem situation. The goal is to move this staff member from the status of “difficult employee” to a cooperative member of the team.

Here's a hypothetical situation to see what it might look like.

Impatient, negative Chris

Chris was hired when Main Street Veterinary Hospital started implementing an electronic medical records system. He had a lot of experience with databases and knew the software the hospital wanted to use. He was not familiar, however, with veterinary practices and team members' roles and duties. He became impatient with staff members who didn't readily understand the new process he was implementing. He was critical and often rude, making derogatory comments behind people's backs.

Practice manager Robin soon saw him as a problem employee. She spoke to him about it, but things didn't seem to change. Disciplinary action would probably escalate the tension around Chris and might end up in his termination. Chris was an important asset, however, so it was worth investing the time and effort in an intervention.

The “exchange strategy” was the vehicle. (We'll assume Robin was trained in the exchange strategy and had developed the communication skills to make it work.)

Step 1 with Chris and Robin

Robin sets up a one-on-one meeting with Chris in a safe setting. She acknowledges his technical know-how and, in particular, his acquaintance with the new software. She explains that she needs to talk to him about complaints presented about his work style, referring to previous times she's mentioned his behavior to him. She tells him that she wants a fuller discussion about the matter through an “exchange process”-an exchange of information and ideas as well as possible ways to resolve the problem so that the staff can work respectfully and cooperatively.

Robin might pose a question to help Chris relax: “What made you decide to go into computer work?” It's possible that Chris will open up and talk at length about his technical experience. At this point, Robin needs to be a good listener.

Robin then returns to the focus of Step 1. She gets specific and outlines several complaints. She may share the names of people who complained, depending on the situation. For example:

• “Marcia said you told her she was ‘really stupid' because she wasn't ‘getting it.'”

• “Dr. Nelson reported that she overheard comments that sounded rude when you were explaining a procedure to Dr. Rosa.”

• “One of the vet techs told me that Marcia left the hospital crying after you admonished her for making a data entry mistake in the new system.”

• “Sarah said you were speaking disparagingly about some of the staff behind their backs.”

At the end, Robin could ask, “Can you tell me what you recall from those incidents and how you perceive your work with the staff?”

Robin will spend a lot of time listening, demonstrating that she's paying attention through body language and eye contact. She may use invitations or open-ended questions to get Chris to elaborate-“Say more about that,” or “Tell me more,” or “What do you think brought that on?” She'll be careful to let Chris respond to each of the allegations and explain his perceptions of the events.

When he finishes, she summarizes his key points until he's satisfied that she has heard and understood.

There is always uncertainty before discussions like these. Robin can't be sure what she'll learn about Chris. He could be defensive. He may blame others as overly sensitive. He might point out that he has repeatedly been called to help a particular employee who insists the computer isn't working when, in fact, it's user error. This made him impatient, he might explain. He might reveal pressure he's under at home as an explanation for some of his comments. He might say that he's unaware of his impact on others. While the complaints are negative, he'll probably be surprised-and grateful-that someone in the organization wants to hear his perspective.

Often at this early stage, the difficult employee wants to offer a solution-either how they can change or how others should change. Robin needs to suggest that this should be held for discussion until their next meeting. Now, she'll explain, she wants to be sure they have a good exchange about the problem situations and how each person was affected by them. She's careful not to attack him; she just describes the impact from the perspective of those who complained.

Robin points out to Chris that the complaints suggest a pattern of behavior and that her expectation is that they find alternative ways for him to show respect to his colleagues.

She can end the meeting by thanking Chris for meeting with her and sharing his perspective, and then setting a date for a follow-up when she wants Chris to come with suggestions on how things can be improved.


Step 2 with Chris and Robin

Before the next meeting, Robin will take time to review her notes and her memory. If she has a colleague she can share with, that person may have insights into Chris' behavior that Robin didn't see or consider. Together, they may come up with solutions that Robin can offer.

Step 3 with Chris and Robin

At this prearranged meeting, Robin once again thanks Chris for his willingness to meet with her and share his perspective. She assures him that she's learned about what influences his behavior, and she hopes he's learned how his behavior affects his coworkers.

Robin, first, asks what thoughts he's had since their last meeting. He may share more, in which case she will move immediately into listening-just like the first meeting.

Once she's sure he's shared everything he wants to about the events, she asks him what solutions he's come up with. In this hypothetical, we can imagine Chris might say things like:

• “I'll try to check my language.”

• “I'd like to find ways to get better acquainted with the staff, so I can appreciate them as veterinarians and not computer people.”

• “I think I need to get more sleep, so I'm not so snippy.”

• “I'd like to apologize and ask them not to be so sensitive.”

Robin acknowledges all his ideas. She might offer solutions, too:

• “I appreciate your interest in getting better acquainted with the staff, and I can commit to arranging some staff gatherings where there can be more sharing.”

• “I'd be willing to arrange for the creation of an educational video on the new system if you think that would keep some team members from asking the same questions over and over.”

Robin and Chris then write down actions to which they each commit and a date for follow-up. They both sign the document. Robin shouldn't make threats related to noncompliance (“If you don't follow through, you're getting fired for sure”), but should spell out consequences as an incentive for Chris to comply (“If we reach this date and you haven't made these changes, we'll need to consider your place on this team”).

After the agreed-on date for behavior change or tasks to be completed, Robin will need to determine if things have improved. Is Chris still a difficult employee? If Robin sees improvement, this is an opportunity to acknowledge that and to thank Chris for helping to make the hospital a satisfying place to work. If she doesn't see improvement, she has the responsibility to follow the protocols outlined by the hospital for stages of disciplinary action or, if necessary, suspension and termination.

Regardless of what happens, the exchange strategy method here provides the employee a chance to find a more productive way of behaving. It can save heartache and careers as well as time and expense in staff turnover.

Dr. Shadle earned her PhD in interpersonal and organizational communication from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Meyer earned his PhD in communication studies and speech arts from the University of Minnesota. They write and have trained veterinary professionals at numerous national and international conferences through Interpersonal Communication Services.