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By: Casey Dubbs, Sherry Everhart, BS, RVT and David McCormick, MS, CVA

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” – Patrick Lencioni

Most practice owners want to have a cohesive, efficient, motivated team. It’s essential to practice growth and it plays a significant role in containing staff costs. However, achieving such a team seems to be one of the most challenging and often elusive undertakings. This is because working together as a team requires hard work and a commitment from every staff member, from the front lines of reception desk right down to the janitorial staff – and it must be a continual effort.

Successful teamwork starts with building trusting relationships, ensuring each individual team member feels valued and important, having a successful means of communication throughout the practice, and making sure that as your team is motivated to continually strive and reach new heights in providing quality services to patients. The following article provides more insights into each of these areas.

Build Trust

It’s important to cultivate trusting relationships between management and the team and between the team members as well. Distrust can destroy a team and there are typically three primary causes. The first is when one or more team members perceives a superior opinion of themselves or another. The second is gossip which can be challenging to keep in check. And while the third, dishonesty, seems a no-brainer, it’s not usually blatant dishonesty that gets teams in trouble but rather a compilation of smaller things – a forgotten promise, setting elusive goals, a miscommunication, or a rumor allowed to go unchecked.

Below are some simple but important ways that owners/managers can help enhance trusting relationships within their teams. Most is not new but it is worth the reminder.

Model honesty & integrity
Be truthful, be consistent (practice what you preach), keep promises, and when you make a mistake, own up to it. Only discuss issues with an individual with that individual. It’s tempting sometimes to seek out the opinions of another staff member for support when you’re frustrated with the actions of another but resist doing so. This not only involves them in something that may not be relevant, it also risks damaging the relationship between the coworkers by pointing out perceived failings. Finally, actively discourage inappropriate conversations concerning clients or coworkers by redirecting the focus to the subject’s positive attributes. If it can’t be overheard by a co-worker or client without a negative connotation, then it shouldn’t be said in the workplace.

Extend trust
Always assume the best about your staff and their intentions and encourage co-workers to do so as well. Choose to focus on the positive aspects of their behavior and only address the negative when it’s in direct conflict with the practice’s vision and core values. Get to know team members on a personal level, not just professionally. Employees are more willing to go that extra step when they perceive that management cares as much about their success as individuals as well as the practice’s accomplishments.

Practice humility
Recognize that leadership is a role within the team, not separate from it. Rarely does a truly successful leader “act” like a leader. True leadership opens possibilities for all involved. They look outward to the wants and needs of others in determining the best path forward for the group.

Be fair
Rules should be applied equally, work tasks should be fairly assigned, and ensure each employee is equally accountable. How fairly an employer treats their workers is a big deal for most employees and a team can quickly become demoralized when it’s perceived that there are ‘favorites’. Pitch in when necessary and actively watch for opportunities to demonstrate that no single individual is above another when there is work to be completed. Set goals for the team that are realistic and attainable and reward staff when they are accomplished.

Value the Employees

The more you can do to make team members feel good about themselves and their role in the practice, the better they will perform.

Encourage an open-door policy
Make sure your door is open to team members to communicate, give feedback, and discuss matters important to them. Show that you respect their input by being sensitive to their ideas and thoughts and carefully considering them.

Build team diversity
Many managers tend to hire for personalities like their own, hoping it will result in a more compatible environment. Ideally, a manager should hire for diversity, both in personality and in skills. Diverse teams tend to be more creative in problem solving and a larger breadth of skills improves the team’s potential for growth.

It’s also important for each team member to feel that they offer a unique contribution to the team. All too often the focus is on what the team member isn’t contributing instead of what they are contributing. Be mindful as to each team member’s strength, what she/he enjoys and what she/he takes pride in doing. Encourage team members to recognize and understand their own uniqueness and that of others.

Recognize accomplishments
Continually watch for opportunities for team members to experience success – and then celebrate it. Where possible, give employees a chance to operate in the frames of their strengths to help enhance the chances of their success.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…

When team communication is strong, it raises the chance that good ideas and best practices will be shared openly. Managers must have an awareness of the signs of poor communication with employees. Signs of ineffective communication include incomplete work, slow progress towards goals, and excessive amounts of time discussing strategies rather than implementing them. Find what communication methods work best in your practice and be mindful that this can change as the team evolves.

Frequent & meaningful team meetings
Many managers avoid team meetings as they perceive them as gripe sessions. However, strategizing as a team allows greater ownership by the team of the practice’s vision and goals. Ensure the time is well spent by preparing and posting an agenda ahead of time with concise topic(s) to be addressed. This allows the team to prepare their thoughts ahead of time and contribute meaningful observations and suggestions. Unless there is a true emergent issue, stay on topic.

Asking for help
Set the expectation that your team members have the responsibility to ask for help when needed. All too often there’s distress in the clinic due to someone being upset that they needed help and the other staff members didn’t help them. When posed with the question, “Did you ask for help?” a common response is “No, they should have been able to see/hear that I needed help”. To help the team members that aren’t comfortable or confident in asking for help (or who wait until they’re angry before asking), you might incorporate exercises into staff meetings such as role-playing to help with these situations. It is challenging to do but it helps.

Clearly define roles
Research shows that productivity is best when team members have a clear expectation of each role they are to play. This is not receptionist versus technician versus doctor roles but rather more specific functions within each department – surgery tech, appointment tech, phone support, client support, etc. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task. With clearly defined roles, employees are able to work independently and with more efficiency.

Communication & learning styles
We all have preferred methods of communication and learning. Improve individual accountability by giving team members a voice in how they prefer you communicate important updates, changes, etc. Offering the usual email, text, memo is fine, but consider exploring newer technologies such as a virtual community board, OneNote, When to Work app, etc. as other possibilities.

Manage Conflict

When owners and managers complain about the difficulty in managing employees, they’re often talking about managing conflict. When not handled properly, conflict alienates team members and inhibits work quality and productivity. However, when well managed, conflict can also lead to tremendous growth. The key is having an effective and consistent approach that encourages constructive dissent.

The first step in managing conflict is quickly identifying and acknowledging that a conflict exists. Sometimes you have to weed through emotions before the true nature of the conflict is revealed. When hot, it is okay to take a moment to step away from it and reconvene with clearer thinking.

Clarify the positions and make sure opposing views and the support for those views, is clearly defined. Then look for the common ground. It’s important for management to stay objective during any discussion even if they think one side is right. It is their role to control the discussion ensuring that it is respectful and solution oriented versus an assignment of blame.

The best outcome is one of collaboration. Put all the solutions on the table. When the entire team is involved in the conflict, it may be helpful to have an anonymous ‘pot’ for members to submit their solutions. Discuss the impact of the conflict and the potential solutions on the team and its effectiveness. Does one of the solutions align more closely to the practice’s mission or vision? The best way for the team to take ownership of the solution is when there is eventual consensus.

Bring Energy

If you aren’t excited about the journey ahead how on earth will you excite those around you? You don’t need to go all cheerleader, but management should be present with a spring in their step and a vibe of passion, urgency, desire, energy and animation. This can be inviting and compelling to the others on your team.

Be supportive of new ideas and provide the encouragement needed to make them a reality. If employees think that everything is going to be the same way all the time, maximum efforts are quickly reduced to the minimum levels needed to get through the day.

Keeping a team motivated and growing is challenging. However, it is a priority for the well-being of a successful practice. Employees help make the practice vision a reality and having a team rewards everyone – the practice, the team members, the clients and the pets.

Casey, Sherry and David are the team members of Simmons Mid-Atlantic, a veterinary practice appraisal and brokerage firm. They can be reached at EMAIL or 888.881.7084.