Understanding employees' attitudes and how you can adjust them


It's time to adjust your cat-titude to make way for service that leaves pet owners purring. Consider this advice to come up to scratch when clients visit your practice.

Have you ever gotten your hackles up because someone asked you to do something that wasn't in your job description? It used to be when you visited a clinic you'd find a veterinarian, a veterinary assistant and maybe someone up front answering phones. Often it was a slower pace and everyone was responsible for everything.

We now walk into clinics and find much more specific job titles: client service representatives, exam room assistants, pharmacy technicians, nutrition advisers and even credentialed technicians with accredited specialties. The idea of one person doing everything in the clinic doesn't really make sense anymore, nor is it possible in most circumstances. Unfortunately, with these changes we also see a familiar problem set in: "This is my area of responsibility and I don't stray from it." Or worse, "This is my area of responsibility—keep out!"

This can be frustrating for team members and managers but even more frustrating for clients. Think of the last time you went grocery shopping and waited a long time to check out. You were tired, short on time and getting angrier by the minute. Worse, as you scanned the front of the store, you saw two to three employees standing around talking. This took your anger to another level of infuriation. Why in the heck couldn't they be doing something to help? Imagine how you'd have felt to see those employees bag groceries, guide shoppers to shorter lines and even offer to help place items on the checkout counter for you?

So what caused those grocery store employees to think it was OK to stand there and chat as you waited in line feeling miserable, thinking, "I'm never going to get home for dinner"? What causes our team members to think it's OK to hang out in the back while the phone rings off the hook and our appointments are running 45 minutes behind? Let's take a look at a couple of the common situations that tend to trigger the phrase, "That's not my job!" These are just some of the attitudes that distract us from our goal of working together to serve clients.

Separate the lazy daisies

Let's talk about the glaring answer first: pure laziness. While a coworker may be lazy, often this behavior is a symptom of something greater. True, there are some of us working in veterinary clinics who are here just for a paycheck. If that sounds like you, I encourage you to rethink your career choice and look for something that stirs your passion. You aren't going to find happiness in "just a job," and it's going to be obvious to you and everyone else that you don't really care.

Tame the turf wars

"They don't help me. Why should I help them?" Before you say this, let me remind you we aren't in grade school, and you're not going to be hearing the third period bell ringing anytime soon. So it's time to grow up. If you make a concerted effort to help others, over time most people will reciprocate. Don't become frustrated when you put forth the effort and it isn't immediately returned. Human behavior changes over time, so have some patience. Put the scorecard away. A cohesive team doesn't keep track to make sure everything's even Steven. If a month goes by and there seems to be one or two people who hold back, meet with them and share your thoughts. Let them know what your plan is to help out and describe how their help would not only benefit you but also clients and pets. You might start with a gentle prompt, like this:

You: "In the past few months, I've been trying to improve how I work by pitching in when I see ways I can help. What can I do to help you?"

In many cases, this will encourage others to reciprocate and ask what they can do to help you, too.

Address the grumpy cats

Burnout and the phrase "It's not my job" go hand in hand. If you find yourself muttering those very words under your breath, it's time to give yourself a time out and re-evaluate what's going on. Has the leadership team placed too much on your plate? This can easily happen when we become the "yes" man or the "yes" woman—we always tell everyone that we can do it or take it on.

Remember, as you take on new challenges and projects in the clinic, you must delegate some of your old ones. If you're struggling with this, sit down with your practice manager or owner and come up with a plan. Consider this example of how you might approach your manager:

You: "I appreciate the chance to talk with you. I've been feeling a little overwhelmed recently, and I wondered if you could help me identify your top three priorities for me. I want to focus on those areas first and make sure you're getting what you need."

Or you may offer a solution:

You: "I appreciate the chance to talk with you. I've been feeling a little overwhelmed recently, and I hope you can help me choose which tasks to delegate so I can concentrate on new responsibilities. I've noticed our new technician is looking for more responsibilities, and I thought this might be an opportunity for both of us to grow in our positions. What are your thoughts on this?"

Maybe your personal life has become overwhelming for the moment and is carrying over into the workplace. Only you can self-diagnose, so do it. Burnout symptoms are real, and it isn't that you've done something wrong. But without corrective action, it will only get worse. You will eventually cross a line, and then there's no going back for a positive outcome.

Calm the 'fraidy cats

Fear is another reason we fail to pitch in. You might be scared to try something new and embarrass yourself in front of a client—or worse a co-worker—and wind up being the butt of the clinic jokes for the next week. You worry you'll step on someone's toes if you venture outside your comfort zone. In both cases, communicate with your team. Ask them for help. This can-do attitude will go far. A positive approach sounds something like this:

You: "I looked on the schedule and I see Rex needs blood work and radiographs. I've done blood work but I've never done radiographs. Can you show me how to do this task this time and next time I can do it for you?"

A lukewarm approach sounds like this:

You: "How can I help?"

When you say this, the other person often thinks, "I don't have time to stop what I'm doing to show you what to do."

And they often respond, "I don't need help," because it just seems easier to finish the work themselves rather than explain how to do the task.

So take a few minutes to think about the education you can pursue on your own to help your team members more around the practice. Many websites offer free team training from topics that range from pet restraint to client communication. When coworkers see you're making effort to learn, they respond in positive ways.

Paws to consider

As you find yourself starting to want to take on more responsibility, I applaud you. But tread lightly. Do be proactive in helping team members in other areas of the hospital. But also realize you don't know what you don't know.

Recently one of our incredible team members was working hard to stay busy during an appointment lull one afternoon. She noticed multiple boxes of inventory had arrived. Though it isn't her job to unpack the supplies, she wanted to help—especially since some of the boxes appeared to be on ice. The third box she unpacked was from a company she recognized, but she didn't know how to store the item inside. Knowing other products manufactured from this company are kept in the freezer, she placed the items in the freezer with the other lab supplies. In fact, this item belonged in the refrigerator and not the freezer. About 30 products were ruined at a cost of more than $500. An expensive lesson to remember: Know what you're doing before doing it. Ask for help. When you have the attitude, "This task needs to be completed and I'm willing to do it—can you show me how?" this will open the door with your coworkers. It will also teach you for the next time so you won't need to ask how.

Finally, make sure you're all in. Don't try to fake it or find yourself taking shortcuts to temporarily appease your clients or fellow team members. It will literally bite you in the butt. We once had a receptionist tell a client that her pet's ashes hadn't returned and to come back in next week to pick them up. The client responded: "But it's already been three weeks." The receptionist could have taken ownership of the client's concerns but instead took the easy way out and instilled false hope. She asked the client to come back a week later only to again find no urn and no ashes. Had the receptionist taken control of the situation and done a little extra leg-work, she would have found the body still in the freezer awaiting further direction. You can only imagine the client's reaction. It's very hard to instill any client confidence at this point.

If you're telling yourself, "It's not the receptionist's fault the body wasn't correctly labeled," you're right. But if you're also telling yourself, "The receptionist didn't have an obligation to research the concern," you're part of the problem. We're all going to make mistakes. Our goal must be to work together to make each other look good and keep clients happy at our practices. After all, that's why we're here.

Easier than herding cats

At your next team meeting, split into small groups with a representative from different parts of the hospital in each group. Talk about what you appreciate about each other and finds helpful that others do for you. Come together and summarize for each other. And when you see someone helping you out, make sure to notice and say something. When we feel appreciated, we're much more likely to repeat the behavior. Your goal: eliminate "That's not my job" from your practice.

Brian Conrad, CVPM, has been the practice manager for Meadow Hills Veterinary Centers in Kennewick, Wash., since 1999. He earned his CVPM designation in 2003 and has served on the VHMA Board of Directors since 2009. Conrad will speak at CVC Kansas City Aug. 23 to 26. To learn more or to register, visit thecvc.com.

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