The power of appreciation in vet med

October 20, 2019

Whether youre a client service representative or a multi-hospital veterinary practice owner, showing appreciation in the right ways to the people who deserve it is a profoundly powerful life skill. Start learning it here.

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Staff burnout, low morale and high turnover have been an increasing problem for veterinary practices, with some sources quoting average turnover at more than double rates of other industries. While money is a factor, it's not the only reason that associate veterinarians and staff members leave for new opportunities. Sometimes want the feeling that their work is appreciated outside a regular paycheck.

Some appreciation programs don't work

Most organizations and businesses in the U.S. have some form of employee recognition program, but these may produce negative results. Employees may feel apathy or cynicism when it comes to the programs. Why? Because many rewards programs feel impersonal, when everyone gets the same rotating “Employee of the Month” certificate, and the criteria for receiving the award is unclear or can often appear “political,” based on favoritism, not merit.

A manager trying to show appreciation for team members can get discouraged, because team members show a lack of appreciation when gifts are given. The temptation is to give up and stop altogether. That gets noticed by the team too, and they wonder what happened when the rewards stop. It can be a vicious circle that wears out a manager trying to make everyone happy. And managers need to feel appreciation too!

Other programs fail because individuals get recognized in front of large groups. A good one-third of employees indicate they don't want to go up in front of a group to receive an award. The last thing many introverted veterinary technicians want is to be the center of attention at a public ceremony.

Finally, most recognition programs heavily emphasize tangible rewards, such as plaques, certificates, gift cards, coupons or small tokens. While most people don't mind receiving gifts, our research with more than 200,000 employees shows they prefer appreciation through verbal praise, individual attention or help with their job duties. Gift cards alone can seem superficial. (No surprise to you, but food is also a much appreciated “reward” in this field.)

Doctors especially-practice owners and associates-should be aware how important verbal praise is to staff members and hospital managers. With DVM initials behind their names and a tremendous amount of influence with staff, a kind word from them can go a long way.

4 things you do to make sure staff feel appreciated

Team members will feel valued when appreciation feels honest and authentic and not just part of a fleeting trend in veterinary practice management. And for authentic appreciation to happen, you need four core conditions:

1. Communicate appreciation regularly. What is “regularly”? It varies, depending on the work setting, the frequency of interaction between coworkers and the nature of the relationship. However, it definitely is more than once a year at an employees' performance reviews. One veterinary practice in Wisconsin encourages staff members to give each other informal recognition on a weekly basis. Every week at the staff meeting, the practice manager reads aloud the messages of thanks and praise that doctors and staff have written throughout the week and dropped into the “warm fuzzy bucket.”

2. Use language and actions to express appreciation that are important to that recipient. Most of us tend to communicate appreciation to others in the ways we value-if you'd like a face-to-face compliment or an email, that's usually how you'll express appreciation to others. But the same things don't make us all feel appreciated. Some people appreciate words of affirmation, while others prefer help with their tasks. Some colleagues value your personal time, so they like when you stop by to see how they're doing. Others appreciate a cup of coffee or small pick-me-up when they've had a long day. Even a high-five or a fist bump can be a form of celebration when people complete a difficult project. Recently, one veterinarian admitted that she would like to be thanked (in person or in writing) when she helps technicians clean kennels or performs service on employees' pets.

How do we want to be appreciated?

How do you know what your colleagues value? Most practices don't start discussions to ask what words and actions make others feel appreciated. That kind of candor can feel uncomfortable. But people do tend to think in terms of encouragement and discouragement. So, try asking, “When you are discouraged, what can we do or say that would encourage you?” (If you're really inspired, you and your team can pay to take the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory.)

3. Recognize employees in a way that's personal and individualized. While group-based recognition is a good start, team members want to know that you value their individual efforts. Let your receptionist know you appreciate that she stayed late for the emergency appointment. Praise your veterinary technician for educating clients about a patient's post-surgical care.

Saying, “Way to go, team. Our wellness package sales improved significantly this month” can be mildly effective. However, if you don't address what individual team members did specifically to achieve the goal, your praise can fall flat. For example, one manager overheard one of the technicians ask if the hospital had an Easter egg hunt planned. Typically, they didn't, but the manager arranged to have a hunt in the hospital on the Friday before Easter. The tech was surprised and happy, but the biggest surprise came from the enthusiasm from the doctors themselves! They were hunting for eggs all over the hospital. Listening to suggestions and taking time for fun shows you care.

4. Praise in a manner that feels genuine and authentic. If your appreciation doesn't feel genuine, nothing else really matters. Your tone of voice, posture or facial expressions should match what you say or your praise will sound insincere. In addition, if the way you act publicly with someone is different from the way you act privately, that person may be suspicious of your accolades. If you give praise only when you want something from someone, people will see right through you.

Appreciating others is an all-hands task

Anyone in your veterinary practice can communicate appreciation to anyone at any level. Communicating appreciation is not just the responsibility of practice owners, managers or supervisors. Employees have told us that they want to know how to encourage one another-they don't just want recognition from their direct supervisor. We all can influence those around us. A receptionist can thank a doctor for squeezing in a walk-in client. A bookkeeper can clean the lobby or exam room. A doctor can bring in donuts for the staff.

Doctors and owners would like appreciation from their staff. All members of the team want to know they're making a positive difference with clients, patients and coworkers.

Start with a small step                 

Start somewhere-today-with someone. You don't need to be in charge to begin to make a difference. Anyone in any jon can start to create a more positive workplace. Commit to doing what you can to communicate appreciation to others. Don't look to your supervisor or administrators to take the lead.

Then, team up with others. Changes are more likely to take root when you get more people on board. Ask a colleague, your supervisor or the team you lead to discuss how this could apply to your setting. Commit to working on a plan of action together.

Last but not least, persevere. See what works and what needs to be changed, but don't give up. Small changes over a long period of time can add up to significant differences.

Paul White, PhD, is a psychologist, speaker, leadership trainer and coauthor, with Gary Chapman, PhD, of the The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Joanne Clark is marketing and communications coordinator at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Louise Geiss is a practice consultant with more than 30 years' experience in the veterinary field.