Keep Your Team Happy: Creating a Positive Environment
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2011
Louise S. Dunn
Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting, Greensboro, NC, USA

 Learn how you can keep your team motivated and happy by using positive methods instead of disciplinary ones. Realize how to recognize and respond appropriately during teaching moments.

 Discover how to create teaching moments and a proactive culture in your practice. Find out how to use affirmative inquiry to make your practice a positive place to work.

Yes, proactive positive learning and reinforcement really does make a difference. The key is creating and maintaining this type of culture in a busy veterinary practice. Proactive teams are not natural especially with the communication and personality style of individuals drawn into veterinary medicine. Be honest do you avoid conflict until you explode or are forced to deal with it?

How many of you have ever trained a puppy? Did you put a stick in your pocket or dog treats? Did you rub its nose in its house soiling accident or did you leash walk it to that outside spot and give praise upon use of the outdoor spot? Did you literally throw it off your bed each night or did you sit with it next to that expensive dog bed and encourage it to relax in that setting? Why is it then that we can use positive reinforcement to train a dog but we can't use it with our own team members?

Surprising how often we find ourselves complaining about a team member, running to tell how incompetent someone is, and refusing to train someone because they are difficult or not respectful - yet we carry treats in our pockets for our dog training! Positive reinforcement can work on humans too. Now don't jump to conclusions, there is a time and a place for reprimands, consequences and punishments - however, when leading a group of people into forming a great team, positive reinforcement can go a long way.

Most veterinary practices are always trying to raise 3 bars: Patient Care, Client Service and Business Growth. The common factor in all three of those areas is your Team. Without your team, it becomes nearly impossible to successfully raise those bars. Without a positive, productive team, you end up spending more time trying to fix all the snags and complaints rather than concentrating on the patient care, client experience, or business.

Much has been written about team motivation. An important starting place is with the practice leadership. This includes both the owners and individual key team members. Start by assessing the ability of key team members (i.e., managers, associates and owners) to lead and motivate. Being a leader often involves energizing others. Although inspirational leadership is good, one must not neglect some energizing characteristics which will keep your team motivated and reaching goals.

The Harvard Business Review talks about "Energizers." There are three tips to become an Energizer.

 Do you focus on the positives? Energizers focus on the bright side. Do you try to catch your team members doing something right - or do you only speak to them when you can reprimand or correct them for doing something wrong? Do you conduct performance reviews where you give your laundry list of mistakes and shortcomings - or do you talk about how they perform some skills well and how they can continue to grow by learning other skills?

 Do you redefine negatives? Energizers do not dwell on the negatives; energizers find ways to call a negative a positive. In the current economy did you lament your financial numbers every day, every hour? Or did you rally your team and tell them that now is the time to concentrate on those new services they wanted to develop, or spend more time bonding with clients? This is not to say that you weren't discouraged, but energizers do not want to be victims. They tackle the negatives from a different angle and try to do something and learn something from the negative.

 Do you respond? Energizers don't give excuses, nor do they neglect to respond to situations. The Nike motto, "Just do it" could very well be the mantra of the energizer. They don't do so blindly, but they don't dawdle and delay action. When a team member comes to you with an idea do you put them off, telling them you need to talk to others or research, and then fail to follow through? Or, do you lay out a plan, giving yourself time to research and when to sit down again and discuss?

Leading and energizing a team takes work. It also takes knowledge of what to do and when to do it. Look back at those three characteristics of an energizer. Would you say you are an energizer? Would you say that you handle yourself the same using all three of those characteristics all the time? The answer would be, "Of course not, different situations call for different responses." Energizing and leading a team means that sometimes you direct a person, sometimes you coach them and sometimes you delegate to them. Go back to the first energizer characteristic.

When you are conducting a performance review you will probably have someone who has some faults. Rather than harping on the faults you want to focus that person on their potential. Perhaps you set up some coaching sessions to get them trained. Next you may direct them and support them. Eventually, you can celebrate their success at the next performance review. You may not have experienced this if all you did was tell them their faults and tell them to shape up or ship out. (Not exactly a positive method to motivate someone).

One helpful method for your performance review is to discuss the Balanced Scorecard with your team members. Setting up a Balanced Scorecard will help keep the team on the right path to success - success in patient care, success in client service, success in business and even success in their personal career path!


As you review this diagram you will notice that part of the balanced scorecard involves financials. Open book management is a technique that can prove beneficial to both the business and team motivation. It is common knowledge that team members can be uncomfortable with prices for some services. It is also common knowledge that your team is communicating your practice's value to the clients. When there is a lack of understanding of some aspects of the business financials the team may be failing to succeed in achieving the vision and strategy. Take some time every month, or every quarter, even once a year, to set goals and develop a scorecard to help the business reach those goals. Some items, such as staff costs, revenue generated, transactions and percentage of revenue can all be used to develop and track performance. Keeping your team appraised of the scorecards and goals will encourage active involvement and accountability of your team members.

Creating a positive team culture requires the knowledge of situational and servant leadership skills. Learn it, live it, love it - knowledge of leadership skills and proper application will make your life much more enjoyable, and you will also have a positive effect on the rest of the team.

You may be asking just how can I lead and energize when all I get are complaints and problems to solve. You may not feel like the energizer bunny when your drum is filled with problems. The solution is called Appreciative Inquiry.

AI (Appreciative Inquiry) is a method of looking at the whole picture and seeing what is done right. Instead of weighing yourself down with seeing all the faults and problems, AI tackles a situation by looking at what is already working for you and building on that knowledge. Rather than looking for gaps or problems, you instead look for areas of excellence and ways to incorporate them into other areas of the business. Let's consider the following example:

You and your team want to start a new service for senior wellness. In the past, you came up with services and prices and told the team to offer it to every senior pet. It failed. Recently, the team has started talking about it again. Rather than trying to list all the reasons you failed the last time, have the team look at the practice and the culture and the vision. What is everyone currently doing that works so well for your team (every practice is different, every practice has a unique culture - you can't have a cookie cutter solution). Perhaps you initiated a fecal testing protocol that has been a huge success. Look at that a little closer. What does the team say to the clients? What information do they use? You may find that looking through the eyes of AI will energize the team and make them realize that they can succeed by copying from this previous success.

Let's go back to the puppy training example. A well trained pup becomes a member of the family. Using praise and seeing what the pup responds to helps you develop a relationship with your pup. Not saying that your team is a pack of dogs, but using positive techniques with help you develop positive relationships with your team. So why not create a positive team culture and environment?

You can keep your team happy. You don't have to feel bogged down under the weight of failures. You don't have to take huge leaps or even expensive leaps to show the team that you recognize their abilities and successes. Focusing on the positives and responding in a positive fashion to negative circumstances will enable the team to see that you appreciate their efforts and value what has been working for the business. In the end, you will have success at raising the 3 bars....better patient care, better client service and better business success - all because you were able to lead and energize the team to greatness (although you may still want to keep chocolate treats for humans in your pocket for old time sake).

The keys to creating a happy team are having clear expectations. Job descriptions that answer the question what am I supposed to do? Then SOPs that answer the question to what standard does each task get performed. Focus on the outcomes, the patient care, client experience and the business. Knowing the outcomes and consequences to each is key.


Speaker Information
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Louise S. Dunn
Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting
Greensboro, NC, USA