Practice positive: Promoting a positive culture in your veterinary practice
If your practice culture had a spirit animal, what would it be? At a recent Fetch dvm360 conference, Fetch speaker and Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member Ori Scislowicz, BS, LVT, aPHR, asked attendees to play the mascot game. (Want to play? Here’s a free tool to try this at your own practice. Go ahead. We’ll wait right here.) Using drawing space in their attendee notebooks, veterinary professionals drew the animals that best represented their practice’s current culture. The results?
One attendee shared her drawing of her clinic cat Milo—19 pounds of love and affection, and loved by everyone at their practice. Another attendee drew sunshine for her practice’s mascot, because she says her team finds a way to stay excited about the work they do, even on sad days.
But it was the third drawing that expresses the workplace challenge many vet professionals face: a two-headed monster. The attendee said she drew the monster because she felt like her workplace was divided, with a group who managed to stay positive and another group that didn’t manage to keep out of the muck.
Why does your practice need to care about its culture? It’s the difference between a practice that thrives, versus one that barely survives. Scislowicz says practices with poor cultures are pretty easy to identify from the outside. It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over the practice, and outsiders who enter can sense the negative energy immediately.
But what does it look like from the inside? Here are the warning signs: People don’t smile. They don’t joke around with each other. There’s a dark energy. There’s no positive enforcement. Instead, Scislowicz says, people focus on infractions. You have controlling leaders. There’s too much concern over hierarchy and power. Managers and team members rarely interact, and there’s a lack of structure and discipline—or too much, signaling a lack of trust. And, most important, people don’t communicate.
“A disparaging culture equals a dying practice,” Scislowicz says.
So what do you do if you discover you’ve got a practice culture on life support? You’ve got to rebuild, she says.
“Talented vet professionals will be attracted to a strong and positive culture,” she says. “[It] strengthens employee engagement and retention and performance.”
Here’s what that looks like.
First, you’ve got to identify the problem areas. An easy way to do that is to survey your staff using free survey software, like SurveyMonkey. Scislowicz says you may consider asking questions like these:
• Are you happy to come to work?
• What contributes to your stress?
• What’s one thing you like about your job?
• What’s one thing you’d like to change about your job?
• Do you feel supported by your team leader?
• Do you feel supported by doctors?
• Do you feel like there’s room for growth in your position?
Once you’ve gathered this feedback, you have to act on it, Scislowicz says. Gathering feedback and failing to act can actually be more demoralizing to team members than not being asked at all.
Once you’ve identified your problem areas, it’s time to work to solutions. First, team members need to learn how to communicate. Scislowicz suggests spending some time during team meetings to train team members to talk to each other—instead of bringing their problems to the manager ... Every. Dang. Time. It’s also a good idea, she says, to encourage team members to have signals so they can communicate when they’re triggering each other. This means team members have to be open to giving—and receiving—feedback.
And some of your feedback needs to be positive. Yeah, I know, seems like a no-brainer, but Scislowicz says sometimes we’re no good at it. For example, do you know how your team members like to be recognized? Not everyone likes public recognition. She suggests searcing the web for "reward and recognition assessments" to find templates for your team. Ask them to complete the assessments so you can personalize rewards to your team members.
Finally, you need to honestly and critically evaluate all the components of culture: your practice’s leadership and management; your workplace practices and policies; your employees, your mission, values and vision; and your physical work environment.
Once you’ve moved your practice to a healthier space, you’ve got to maintain positive culture. This starts at the beginning of your relationship with team members. During onboarding, Scislowicz suggests check-ins with new employees at two weeks, 45 days and 90 days. This help you identify when team members are struggling with processes, interpersonal relationships and more. It also means using phased training.
Next, consider the life balance you offer your team, Scislowicz. Do you offer PTO, does it increase over time, and do you have opportunities for growth and CE?
Finally, it’s wise to create a cultural contract: This consists of five key points your team members agree on about how you will treat each other. “For example, we don’t wait more than 24 hours to address an issue, or we won’t gossip, we will talk to each other,” Scislowicz says.
You. Can. Do. This!
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