Turn your ineffective group into an impressive team


You're all working hard, but are you working together? You might just be a group of people in the same clinic. Here's how to build a real veterinary team

If you work at a veterinary practice, you work on a team, right? Wrong. Just because you work with other people doesn't mean you and your co-workers are functioning as a team. (Click here for 8 telltale signs your team is just a group.) I've worked with a lot of veterinary practices, and at almost every one I've had to educate staff members about what teamwork is.

Many teams are really just groups that pay lip service to teamwork. These groups know what teamwork means in spirit, but they don't always know what it means in action or how to make it happen.

The essence of teamwork is giving up your individual goals so you all can move forward as a cohesive unit. This can be scary stuff, especially if there are some so-called team members who aren't participating. But you must change your team's group mentality for the good of your practice, patients, clients, and your own happiness.

The first step is drilling down to the differences between a group and a team. Check out the chart "Telltale signs your team is just a group" in he related links below. Do any of those situations sound familiar? If so, you're most likely working in a group. To be sure, let's take a closer look at the dynamics of a group.

You know it's a group when...

On a team that's merely going through the motions, you'll find receptionists in the front and technicians in the back. Even though these employees work together, they don't necessarily pay any attention to each other. They block out others around them to focus on their own duties. And it's no wonder, because they're probably making each other's jobs more difficult.

All this is problematic because, as veterinary team members, your days are filled with a series of handoffs. These handoffs happen every time a client travels from a receptionist to a technician or a veterinarian to a veterinary assistant and so on. And each handoff is an opportunity to make a mistake. Here's an example:

When a client arrives at the clinic, a receptionist greets her. That receptionist needs to let a technician know the client has arrived. But the receptionist might not get the pet's name right when she talks to the technician. The technician is embarrassed when she incorrectly refers to the pet. At checkout, the technician takes the chart to the front desk and fails to mention that the client needs to schedule a follow-up appointment. These two team members have just created more work for each other, not to mention created a bad experience for the client.

Now, the receptionist or veterinary technician in the above scenario might have a suggestion for ensuring these handoff mistakes don't happen again. But, in a group, neither will share because they're both either uninspired or know their ideas will go unheard. Or maybe they're afraid. In many groups, team members keep quiet because they fear being labeled unsupportive, getting socially ostracized, or dealing with the boss's wrath.

All this leads to distrust. Staff members in groups can't be sure whether their colleagues are working to elevate the team or destroy individuals. An example is a practice that provides solid training then keeps team members from applying the knowledge to their job. This happens because doctors, managers, team members, or all of the above feel threatened when co-workers demonstrate their skills.

Another sign you're working in a group: When conflict happens, no one at your hospital knows how to resolve it. After all, group members can't take their disagreements to a manager, because supervisors put off intervention until after serious damage occurs.

As a result of all this, people in groups keep their heads down. They focus on themselves. And we're back to the root cause of failed teamwork.

Why groups happen

It's not that veterinary team members who work in groups are unskilled, unsupportive people who can't be trusted. Instead, they're victims of a systemless practice. Just what systems are missing and what should be done? First off, owners and managers must communicate what each team member's role entails and the value of that role in terms of the services the practice provides. Then managers must implement a way to hold team members accountable for completing their duties and doing their part.

Think back to the example of the botched handoff between the receptionist and technician. If the client in that situation complained and a manager asked the group what went wrong, employees in the group would look at the ground and say, "I don't know." On a true team, co-workers would be able to look the manager in the eye and say, "Here's what happened." They'd know exactly where the breakdown occurred because they know who's responsible for what and why it matters. Plus they'd feel comfortable acknowledging the problems because they're confident the team will look for solutions rather than lay blame.

Another essential system to create is a process for involving employees in practice planning and goal setting. When team members are told what to do rather than asked for suggestions, they check out. They lack a feeling of ownership over their jobs. Including them in meaningful decisions means they'll take responsibility for ensuring things get done right.

Finally, employees morph into groups rather than teams when management hasn't outlined a protocol for dealing with conflict. Avoiding conflict slows down your practice and creates a toxic environment. When groups turn toxic, the practice owner or manager needs to take control. If two team members were fighting in my hospital, I'd take them aside separately and say, "I don't know what's happening with the two of you, but now it's my problem. Everyone can feel the negative energy around both of you." And if the doctor is part of the problem, you need to pull him or her aside and say, "Do you want me to do this job, or would you like to keep sabotaging me?"

This sounds harsh, but it's time veterinary professionals recognize that conflict is an opportunity to learn and try something new. You're not required to love your fellow veterinary team members. But if you're interested in helping people and pets, you need to learn to handle conflict.

How teams work

On a true team, staff members recognize that conflict is inevitable and a normal part of human interaction. Many veterinary employees chose to work with animals because human interactions don't interest them. But you can't be called a professional if you don't know how to work with people in veterinary medicine. As such, members of a team use open, honest communication. They make an effort to understand the other person's point of view rather than automatically responding—silently or out loud—with, "No, I'm not listening."

People working on a team recognize they're dependent on each other. They understand that working together allows them to accomplish practice goals, as well as personal ones. Fully functioning team members work in a climate of trust where they encourage the open expression of ideas, opinions, disagreements, and feelings. They welcome questions.

Turning into a team

Now that you understand the differences between groups and teams, let's look at how to create a team atmosphere. There are three critical elements:

1. Equality. Obviously there's a pecking order of doctor, manager, and so on. But in healthy practices, equality exists in terms of access to one another and in the absence of double standards. No one says, "The rules don't apply to me because I'm at the top. The rules don't apply to me because I have a skill nobody else has. The rules don't apply to me because I've been here longer." There should be no untouchables in your practice.

2. Problem orientation. This means that team members look for problems to solve. Yes, they actually search for areas where systems are broken. Then they encourage communication about solutions.

3. Sensitivity. This is key to encouraging communication. Too often veterinary professionals are sensitive to animals but not to one another. Or we're hypersensitive and we feel everything. We need to be sensitive to people's struggles on the job and sensitive to problems we can fix, but not take all the things personally that happen in the clinic.

Now that you're armed with info, you don't have to let "groupthink" weigh you down. If you're operating in a group, it's time to take a close look at your relationships and take steps to come together. Remember that you go to work to serve pets and their owners, and creating an effective team is the only way to do it right.

Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, is a member of the Firstline and Veterinary Economics editorial advisory boards and is CEO of McVey Management Solutions in Phoenix.

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