Working in harmony


Studies show that people rise--or sink--to the level of their leaders' and co-workers' expectations, so show confidence in your team's abilities and express a "we can do it" attitude.

The key to a great work team is co-workers who show respect for each other, talk through problems when they arise, and work together to achieve common goals. But even the most finely tuned teams hit a flat note on occasion and encounter inefficiency, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and conflict. No matter the state of your team, you can bring more harmony to your working relationships. Here's how:

Are you growing?

Know your part

If you're not sure where your job fits into the big picture at your practice, find out. Set aside some time at a staff meeting to review the practice's mission statement, and talk about how daily tasks in the hospital fulfill that mission.

Your job description also can give you insight into how the doctor or manager sees your role. If you don't have a specific job description, consider writing one yourself and then discussing it with your supervisor. Just writing down your responsibilities and work goals can help you focus on what you really need to accomplish from day to day.


Part of understanding your role in the hospital is understanding yourself. For example, think about how you like to work and what you expect from the people you work with. Then communicate that information to your team by setting limits, when necessary.

Setting limits is really just defining and protecting your comfort boundaries. In other words, you set limits to keep others from invading your physical and psychological space and making you feel uncomfortable. In extreme cases, not setting limits can leave you feeling exploited and angry—sexual harassment is one dramatic example. When setting limits, remember that you need to be clear about defining your boundaries, be consistent in your requests, and follow through when people don't respect your limits.

Think about clarity this way: Practice policies are a type of limit. However, when a specific situation arises, you may realize you don't know exactly what the policies mean. For example, suppose you're responsible for keeping the surgical suite clean. What does "clean" mean? One person might interpret the job to mean culturing the surgery table at regular intervals. Another might think that if there's no visible dirt, it's clean.

Whether you're setting a practice policy or a limit on sharing your office supplies, stick to it. All the clear explanations in the world won't help if you muddy the message by responding inconsistently when people step over the line.

Remember, inconsistency creates variable reinforcement, which is the most effective way to establish an unwanted behavior. Imagine a client whose dog begs for a treat. One day it takes 20 minutes for her to give in, the next day it takes 10 minutes, and the next day it takes 30 minutes. Before long, the dog will beg for hours, because he never knows when it will pay off. And people can be even more persistent than pets, so make sure you follow through by taking action if someone at work violates your boundaries.

What's an example of follow-through? Say one of your team members regularly uses offensive language. Your first steps are to explain to your co-worker that certain words and topics are offensive to you and to ask that she not use such language in your presence. If she persists, tell her that you won't hesitate to talk to the practice manager about the problem if it continues. If the language does continue, follow through by speaking with the manager.

Keep in mind, it's better not to set a limit than to set one you won't enforce. In other words, if push comes to shove, you need to say no, mean it, and act on it.

Support other players

By setting limits, you've started identifying ways you want other team members to support you. You also need to help other people in the practice achieve their potential.

Research shows that workplaces that make people feel BRAVER—Believed in, Respected, Accepted and understood, Valued, Encouraged, and Recognized—enjoy high productivity and job satisfaction. Here's how you can help foster that kind of work environment and build stronger relationships with your team members:

  • Believe the best. Studies show that people rise—or sink—to the level of their leaders' and co-workers' expectations, so show confidence in your team's abilities. Express a "we can do it" attitude.

  • Show respect. You can do so by communicating openly and clearly. Don't forget that your body language also sends a strong message. Think about how powerful it is when people roll their eyes, look at their watch, sigh, or "tsk." You don't want to send these messages of disrespect to co-workers or clients!

Two more tips on respect: Find something in everyone that you admire, and don't forget the small courtesies. A simple thank-you, a note of appreciation, or an apology can be magical.

  • Recognize your co-workers' contributions. You may be far more aware of what your co-workers do to help each other out than either the manager or practice owner is. Express your appreciation frequently, especially for the "small stuff," and make an effort to praise your fellow team members in the boss's presence.

  • Encourage the team. Sometimes all it takes is one person with a chronic positive attitude and a steadfast sense of humor to propel team success.

Now that you know what makes people feel satisfied at work, discuss these ideas at your next staff meeting. Ask each person to give one example of what makes him or her feel BRAVER and to acknowledge a fellow team member for something he or she did well that week.

Listen, listen, listen

Careful listening heads off and resolves problems better than any other skill you can develop. People want to know that you understand and care how they feel. Hear people out—especially when there's a problem—and you'll earn co-workers' cooperation and respect. Here's how you can master the four basic listening skills:

1. Show you're paying attention. You can do so by maintaining eye contact and responding with phrases like, "I see." You also can send the right message with your body language: Don't play with a pen or shuffle papers while someone is speaking, and lean forward slightly while the person talks.

2. Paraphrase. By summarizing what the person says, you show you're listening and you verify that you understand what the person is trying to say.

3. Ask clarifying questions, but remember to maintain a neutral tone. You don't want the person to feel like you're conducting an interrogation.

4. Reflect what you think the person feels. For example, if a co-worker says, "I can't believe you took my calculator without asking!" don't just repeat what she said. Instead, reflect what she means: "It sounds like I invaded your personal space." If you're on target, your co-worker will agree. If not, she'll likely explain what the problem really is.

Keep in mind, we all react differently to situations because we perceive them differently. Almost nothing can build a work relationship more than showing a co-worker that you're trying to understand his or her thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Your final goal is to agree on how you will proceed, either to resolve a problem or to avoid future conflict. When you believe you have an agreement with another team member, perform this simple test: Say, "So, if I understand correctly, I will do [this], and you will do [that]." You may be surprised to find that the other person doesn't understand your "agreement" the way you do. Such miscommunication can cause a tremendous amount of conflict—and it's easy to avoid with such a test.

Prepare to play in many keys

Listening actively, seeing situations from other points of view, and communicating understanding are not skills you learn overnight. In fact, throughout our lives, many of us develop coping skills that run directly opposite to this advice—and we're especially likely to return to our old communication habits when there's conflict.

It takes practice and commitment to set aside those habits and adopt a more flexible, problem-solving attitude. Here are six strategies that can help you maintain a flexible frame of mind when you face conflict:

1. Assume positive intentions. Remember that the people you work with are trying their best to accomplish something positive, even if you sometimes find their efforts frustrating or inefficient.

2. Stop wishing the other person were different. You can't change the person, so spend your time and energy thinking about how you can smooth communication and ease tensions.

3. Don't take things personally. You can't concentrate on understanding someone else if you're trying to defend yourself.

4. Instead of focusing on who's to blame, investigate the situation. Think about why the difficult situation occurred, what strategies you can use to resolve it, and how your team can avoid similar problems in the future.

5. Acknowledge the feelings of the people involved. Try this three-part response to help open communication with an angry team member: "Kathy, I can see you are upset. I would like to help. Please tell me how you see this situation."

6. Be patient and persistent. It may take some time to get to the bottom of the problem. A co-worker who acts irritated about some minor issue may be nursing hurt feelings because of a slight she thinks you made a week ago—and you won't really clear up the problem until you clear up the original misunderstanding and reassure the person that you value her contributions.

The mindset produced by following these principles is essentially the mindset of a clinician with a difficult case: acceptance of the situation; neutrality; and a spirit of inquiry, patience, and persistence. This approach works in difficult "people" cases as well.

Keep the tempo upbeat

When team members can trust one another to be encouraging, they learn faster and communicate more openly, because they have the support and freedom to learn from their mistakes. Try on these traits for size, and let your team hear your applause:

  • Broadcast your enthusiasm. It has been said that there is nothing more contagious than enthusiasm—except the lack of it! You've probably been in environments where negativity ruled the day. Remember the dismal effect on morale, productivity, and team spirit?

In contrast, enthusiasm gives people courage. Find something to be enthusiastic about—perhaps a new technique you can share with team members or your idea to make an office procedure run more smoothly. Be enthusiastic about other team members' ideas as well—before you analyze the potential pitfalls.

  • Be an optimist. Optimists aren't Pollyannas, nor are they just "happy" people. Instead, optimists believe that defeats are temporary, surmountable challenges to be overcome. They have a "we can fix this" attitude. Research shows that optimism is learned, so make it your goal to develop a positive approach.

  • Communicate the positive. Make sure you focus on team members' assets, resources, and strengths, not on their weaknesses or deficiencies. A discouraging communicator might say, "You should know how to do that by now. I don't know when I'll have time to train you. This is really a problem!"

An encouraging communicator might say, "Good—you know how to do the first part of the procedure, so you're halfway there. Because I'm a bit short on time, let's find out who might be free to finish training you. You're doing fine with the first part, so I know you'll be able to learn the rest quickly."

When you do feel discouraged—or you sense that a team member is glum—learn to interpret the situation more positively. In other words, when it looks bad from where you're standing, find another view.

For example, if a team member is discouraged about his or her lack of skill at intubation, the supervisor could say, "I can understand how you might feel discouraged. However, I see that you approach intubation carefully and have a gentle touch. That's great, because we don't want the delicate tissues of the larynx bruised. You can relax about that part of the procedure, because you're naturally gentle."

  • Set SMART goals. In other words, make sure your goals are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timely. By doing so, you give your team a yardstick to measure your progress—and you'll know when it's time to celebrate new achievements.

  • Focus on effort. Reward improvement and don't criticize simply because the results aren't what you hoped for. See mistakes as an opportunity to learn, and invite everyone on the team to participate in finding a solution or a better approach.

It's not easy to create and maintain team relationships that "sing." In the long run, however, it's more than worth the effort—few things are more satisfying than working in harmony and hearing the applause.

Cecelia Soares, DVM, MS, MA, is a veterinary communication specialist, a consultant, and a speaker and workshop leader based in Walnut Creek, Calif.

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