The Case for Using Case Studies to Build Your Team

February 2, 2018
Carolyn C. Shadle, PhD

John L. Meyer, PhD

When it comes to making a veterinary team stronger and more cohesive, case studies can be an effective alternative to traditional teaching methods.

There was a time when a teacher could walk into a classroom with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other and enjoy talking endlessly about the subject at hand.

Today, effective trainers don’t lecture and expect rote memorization of terms, facts or protocols. Computers and smartphones can instantly provide terms and facts. Instead, the most successful instructors want to see teams learn protocols by experiencing situations and engaging in problem solving.

Enhancing Communication Skills

Veterinary schools are using case studies to enable students to experience medical situations and consider alternative solutions. Similarly, case studies regarding interpersonal encounters can be used to help team members develop or review the communication skills needed to build an effective and satisfying team.

Case studies are effective because they are realistic — but not real — so team members can relate and discuss scenarios without feeling threatened.


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Steps to Using Cases in Communication Training

Select a Case

To begin the process, first determine which communication skill you wish to address. Perhaps it is important to highlight the challenge of listening, or maybe there are problems with how team members confront one another.

Select a published case on your chosen topic, or write your own. When you write your own, be sure to make it a fictional story describing a familiar problem but not pointing to specific team members.

Read and Discuss the Case

Then, ask all team members to read the case and come together at a staff meeting to discuss it. If there is dialogue in the case, you might ask team members to volunteer to read and or role-play the characters. Some will enjoy being amateur thespians in this dynamic and dramatic approach.

Remind team members that the purpose of using the case is to examine the interpersonal communication process — not the specific content of the situation. For example, if the case is about how Martin addressed his coworker about her tardiness, focus on what Martin said and how his coworker responded; this is not the time to discuss work schedules.

As everyone gets into the story, encourage them to laugh and have a good time while also perhaps being appalled by the behavior in the case. Remember, it’s fictitious.

If team members were assuming certain roles, take time to debrief how they felt about the character they portrayed. It is important that players can clarify their own position and differentiate themselves from the characters.

Define the Problem

Next, ask team members to define the problems presented by the players in the case. Focus on the players’ communication in your discussion.

Offer Alternatives

Invite your team members to offer suggestions on how to solve the problem as well as how the problem could have been prevented. Use the rules of brainstorming: the more ideas the better, invite people to piggyback on one other’s ideas, and reserve judgment until you’ve completed the list.

Evaluate the Alternatives

When the team has exhausted its ideas, it is time to make a judgment. Encourage the team members to evaluate the alternatives and decide on possible solutions. This may entail a variety of things, such as building skills, understanding each other better, or inviting an impartial mediator. Take time to compare one person’s problem analysis and solutions with those of others, including the opinions of outside experts in the field.

The End Result

In the subsequent days and weeks, ask yourself how the use of the case study has affected behavior among your team members. Did it raise everyone’s awareness of the importance of effective communication? Will revisiting the case or the concepts be useful? Should the study be followed by training in communication skills, either in-house or at a regional or national conference?

In contrast to the lecture with the chalkboard, you can be sure the case study will get everyone’s attention. It will be fun and build bonds as well as awareness and communication skills.

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