Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, April 2018
“Maria’s skirt is awfully short, isn’t it? And she sure doesn’t have the figure to pull that off!”
“You’re not going to believe what I heard about our new client . . .”
“Did you hear who is getting divorced? You’re not going to believe what happened!”
“We’re not getting bonuses this year because of what happened between Fred and Susan.”
“Did you hear why Martin got that raise? And did you hear how much it was?”
Statements like this are heard in workplaces around the country, including veterinarian offices, with victims of gossip being managers, coworkers, clients – and anyone else the gossiper runs across during his or her day. While gossip can contain kernels of truth, stories shared are often blown out of proportion, and are sometimes completely false.
When people who work at a veterinarian’s office gossip, and the manager doesn’t effectively address the situation, the workplace quickly becomes toxic. Some managers don’t address the gossip because they are turning a blind eye (or, more accurately, ear!) to what employees are doing. And, unfortunately, sometimes the managers are active participants in the gossiping, which makes the situation even worse.
Gossip, unchecked, can lead to significant productivity and morale issues. Star employees will likely begin to look for work at another practice, which leads to costly turnover, and significant cases of malicious gossip can lead to legal liability issues for the practice.
So, how should workplace gossip be handled?
Understanding Reasons Why People Gossip
It can be helpful to try to pinpoint why people are gossiping in your workplace. For example, do employees feel as though they aren’t being provided enough information about the workplace and so they are seeking out details among themselves? If the gossip being shared is largely about decisions being made in the veterinary office, then being more transparent about what’s going on can go a long way in quashing the gossip.
Are there trust issues in the practice, especially between employees and managers? If employees don’t trust what their managers say, they tend to rely upon one another to get the real story, and this easily lends itself to creating a gossip culture. Honest and open communicate is key, and that starts with the top.
Other times, certain employees gain a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as someone in the know. If these employees enjoy being perceived as a central source of information, they will continue to play this role to soak up attention. This creates a malignant cycle because, as the information-central employee is rewarded with attention, he or she will likely continue to provide even more gossip. So, what can you do? Once someone regularly engages in gossip, it can be challenging to correct this behavior but it can sometimes be addressed by helping the employee receive attention in positive and productive ways.
Put Policies in Place
Like any other human resource-related issue, employee manuals should contain policies to address the situation, including what is prohibited and the consequences that will occur if someone acts in an inappropriate way. This information should be highlighted during the annual meetings in which the manual is discussed.
It’s important to know the law when writing these policies. For example, it’s tempting to include that employees are not allowed to discuss their salaries – but it isn’t legal to prohibit that. It’s also important to differentiate between harmful gossip and normal workplace discussions. For example, someone might say, “Did you hear that Sara’s cat had six kittens last night? The cat is such a beautiful calico, so I’ll bet the kittens are really cute.”
Technically speaking, you could call this gossip, which can be defined as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”
The employee is talking about Sara in a casual way, providing details that may not be true. There might have been five kittens – or seven – and maybe none are calico. Or, maybe the cat didn’t even have her kittens yet. But, should that conversation be prohibited by policy?
Define what you mean by gossip. You might, for example, determine that, when conversations about others are disruptive, or have the potential to hurt feelings or damage relationships, that’s gossip. If it drains employees’ morale, that’s gossip.
Model Appropriate Behavior
After a long day, it might be tempting for you – as a veterinarian or practice manager – to make an off-the-cuff remark about a difficult client. But, beware. To help ensure that employees don’t gossip, it’s crucial that you watch what you say. When employees make a comment that can be construed as gossip, you can model how that same concept could be shared in a non-gossipy way or explain why it wasn’t appropriate to say. When an employee occasionally makes comments that cross over into gossip, behavior modeling and employee coaching generally work. Call yourself out, as well, when you slip into behaviors along the gossip spectrum.
Deal Directly with Problem Employees First
If an employee is a hard-core gossiper, then you will need to follow your progressive disciplinary procedure, a process that most likely starts with a verbal warning and ends with termination. Meet individually with a perpetrator in a confidential location and discuss the impact that his or her gossiping is having on other individuals and the practice. Review with each perpetrator the disciplinary procedures that will be followed, and then stick to them, even if it results in firing an employee who resists improving his or her behavior.
It’s important to meet individually with gossipers first, rather than going immediately into a team meeting or sending out an email blast, and here’s why. You might remember being a child in a classroom where a teacher vented about the high absenteeism rate – ranting, of course, to the students who did show up to class. Sending a group email or holding a team meeting without individual counseling and discipline is the grown-up version of the teacher chastising people with good attendance for absenteeism.
When you do meet with your entire team, discuss the topic of gossip on a broad level. Invite your team to brainstorm solutions to help ensure that your workplace culture is as positive and gossip-free as possible. This can include rewarding employees when they share positive news with one another, perhaps giving kudos to a fellow employee who received an important certification or handled a difficult customer especially well (making sure that these “kudos” aren’t really a disguise for gossiping about the challenging customer!).
Finally, you need to protect employees who share instances of gossiping with managers. Ironically, you also need to watch to ensure that this reporting doesn’t become an insidious form of gossip. Remain firm and consistent in your efforts to root out gossip. This process can be challenging, especially if gossiping behaviors have been entrenched into your workplace culture, but the ultimate rewards are significant and worthwhile.
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It’s hard to dispute that strong leadership is important, so how can this readiness gap be filled in? Here are eight strategies from Monday Morning Leadership by David Cottrell.
Drivers and Passengers
Are you a driver – or are you a passenger? Drivers must keep their focus on the road, whereas passengers have more freedom to goof off. And, to be a good leader, you must become like the driver with more responsibilities and fewer freedoms. As a manager, for example, you must oversee people, and you should not complain about company management. Plus, as a strong leader, you should never look for someone else to blame. That causes you to focus on the past, whereas fully accepting responsibility permits you to focus on today, on now, to move forward and to plan for positive change in the future.
Here’s the bottom line. You can’t always control a situation, but you can control how you respond. Yes, there are struggles in management, but there is no point in feeling sorry for yourself, because that’s a total waste of time.
Keeping the Main Thing . . . the Main Thing
What’s the most important thing – the MAIN thing – for your department or team? Ask ten different people and you’ll most likely get that many answers. So, as a leader, it’s crucial that you communicate what the main thing is, both to the people you manage as well as to your superiors. When everyone has the same understanding of purpose and goals, it’s much easier to remain focused and productive.
Escape from Management Land
How can you do that? Here are three steps:
- Hire the right people.
- Coach all of your people to succeed.
- De-hire the people who don’t pull their share of the load.
And, here’s a common trap to avoid. There are three categories of workers: superstars, middle stars and falling stars. Managers far too often give superstars increasing amounts of work to do while taking away the work from the falling stars. This rewards the falling stars by giving them less work to do for the same pay while your superstars are being overworked. Flip this model upside down! Instead of lowering the bar to accommodate falling stars, raise the bar and reward your superstars.
The Do Right Rule
Do the right thing, even if no one is watching – and even when doing so is hard. It’s your job to establish a code of behavior and to protect your integrity, which will help to build trust between you and your team. Also, do not make decisions when you’re in a crisis. Instead, implement previously-prepared plans as your response. Think of yourself as a pilot who sees a flashing warning light. He or she doesn’t ignore the light in the plane. Instead, the pilot troubleshoots, refers to a manual of potential fixes and then implements the correct one to fix the problem before it becomes an emergency.
When you hire tough, managing becomes easier – a much better scenario than hiring easy and managing tough. The right people can be your greatest asset, while the wrong people are your biggest liability. Here are hiring tips:
- Always plan your interviews ahead of time.
- Develop your questions and then practice the order in which you ask them.
- Hire using the rule of three: interview at least three people for each position, see each person three times, and have three people evaluate them.
- When you interview someone multiple times, schedule them for different times of the day. You will be working with someone all day so seeing them at different times for an interview is useful.
- Never lower your standards to fill a spot. Finding the right person is more important than filling a hole.
- Ultimately, make it an honor to work for your team.
Do Less or Work Faster
You can’t add time to your day so, to be more efficient, you either have to do less or work faster. To accomplish the latter, you’ll need to implement strategies to make better use of your time. Here are examples:
- First, spend uninterrupted planning time every day. This allows you to be organized in how you spend your time.
- Next, clean your desk. A cluttered desk doesn’t make you look busy or important. Instead, it makes you look unorganized and can lead to shuffling and reshuffling files or papers, which wastes time.
- Only check email at scheduled times.
- Organize similar activities into batches to reduce transition times.
- Change your lunch time to 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. to avoid lines.
- Keep meetings short and productive.
Here’s a big one: limit interruptions because time is wasted every time you are interrupted. If you can’t avoid an interruption, limit it. Sound impossible? Here’s one tip: if you stand up when someone comes in your office, that helps to keep the interruption shorter.
Buckets and Dippers
Picture each person as having a bucket of motivation. For some people, the bucket can be overflowing; for others, it is virtually empty and needs refilled. Also imagine each person with a dipper that represents negativity – or anything else that can drain someone else’s motivation.
An outstanding leader keeps everyone’s bucket full. But, how? Here are four ways to fill a bucket:
- Identify what’s important for people in order to do a good job and avoid creating confusion or being inconsistent.
- Provide feedback on how each employee is doing.
- Let employees know you care about them and the job they do.
- Also let them know how well they are doing as a team.
The best news is, the more you as a leader fill other buckets, the more your own bucket will be filled. And, interestingly enough, leaders actually need their employees more than their employees need their leaders. If you remove the leader, employees will typically still get 95% of their work done. If, though, you removed all the employees, the leader would probably only be able to get 10% of the work done. So employers should focus on helping employees be the very best they can be.
Enter the Learning Zone
Leaders need to focus on their own growth; otherwise, they will get stuck in their comfort zones where nothing changes. As a leader, you can picture yourself in the learning zone that has three rooms.
The first room is the reading room. Most leadership problems are not unique and wisdom can be found in leadership books. If leaders spent just ten minutes a day reading, they would have read 12 books over the course of a year, which could significantly increase knowledge on a subject.
The second room is the listening room. The main reasons executives fail are arrogance, ego and insensitivity. When leaders forget to take the time to listen to their teams, they become insensitive to their needs and desires. Also, use your listening time wisely. When you are in the car, for example, you could spend time listening to motivational or inspirational tapes instead of talk radio or music.
The third room is the giving room. Teach others what you have learned. The more leaders teach, the more they become accountable to what they are teaching. Set goals for yourself as a leader because goals are the strongest force for self-motivation – because they push you out of your comfort zone.
Finally, stay positive! Bad things happen to everyone, but the successful don’t get discouraged.
When you start practicing as a veterinarian you are expected to partake in continuing education to keep your skills and knowledge base current. You should do the same with your leadership skills. By learning how to be more assertive or tweaking your current knowledge base to become a more effective leader, you can help your clinic run more efficiently. When you are a leader, the idea of becoming more assertive is not just being confident in what you are asking your co-workers or employees to do, but also in getting them to buy into the overarching goals of the practice. The following are ways in which you can make changes to become a better leader.
Effective leaders are also coaches, and the letters in the word “coach” can be reminders of how to act.
Clarify practice goals, and make sure that your team knows what you are working towards. Communicate to each team member how his or her job is important in achieving the goals that you have set for the practice. An example would be to tell your technician that he or she is responsible for keeping supplies in the exam room, such as alcohol bottles filled to a certain level.
Obtain commitment. You feel as though you have explained every single detail about practice goals, but if people don’t understand or don’t feel like there is anything in it for them, you won’t get anywhere. It is important to help them understand what the benefits are if they help you work towards this goal. For example, impress up on the receptionist the importance of charging all fees associated with the visit so that there is a better chance for a profit sharing bonus. Not only are you making her understand that it is important to capture the charges but also how it benefits her in the long run. Make sure that you praise these team members when you see them doing something correctly. The praise will make them feel good and they are likely to do that again.
Analyze and appraise. Assess the performance of individuals and the team objectively. Are you moving towards your goals? Are you watching for teachable moments so that you can keep the team on track? Perhaps you notice that when a certain technician works the supplies in the exam rooms run lower than you are comfortable with, tell them! Show them the levels that you want, sometimes people don’t understand when you tell them and it is helpful to reinforce the learning with a visual aid.
Challenge the status quo. You want to make sure you have created an environment that is comfortable with change. Be open and willing to hear what your team has to say. If they feel like they can contribute to the goal in a more material way than just following orders, they are more likely to buy into the goal as a whole. Say your technician notices that the phone rings more in the morning and she often gets pulled between helping you, the doctor, and helping the receptionist answer the phones. She comes to you with the idea of hiring someone to work from 9-1 (the busiest phone hours) so she isn’t getting pulled away from you and ensuring the phones get answered in a timely manner. Having an atmosphere where your technician feels comfortable coming to you with a solution like that is wonderful. Let your team contribute and impress upon each individual that they are important in the success of the business.
Help your team succeed. If you see that someone is not performing well, take some extra time to help him or her get back on track. If someone is doing well, keep coaching. Think of the athletes you know, they all have coaches to keep pushing them, right? You are the coach of your clinic team! If your technician is busy helping another doctor or with another patient and you notice treatments need to be done, jump in and do some treatments! Your message of working together as a team toward clinic goals will go further if you are willing to jump in and help out.
Sometimes we don’t need to COACH the team to move toward the goals of the clinic. Rather, we need to persuade him or her to find solutions to any problem that the clinic has. By empowering the team to bring you solutions you can open dialogue where there was none before. There are eight steps to encouraging the team to solve problems:
- Define the problem. It is said that a problem named is a problem solved and so drawing attention to the problem is the first step. Looking back at the questions we asked earlier, maybe the problem is there are not enough surgery packs to get through all the surgeries scheduled for the day.
- Outline the basic facts. Allow the team to organize their thoughts by asking for the facts of the problem. This is a two-way conversation. You are helping empower your team to solve the problem and are a resource for them to utilize. The facts of the above situation are that there are not enough sterile instruments to perform all of the surgeries scheduled. The closing technician did not clean the instruments. The opening technician didn’t notice the dirty instruments or she didn’t know to check to make sure all the instruments were cleaned.
- Generate as many potential solutions as possible. This is a brainstorming exercise and helps your team member work through the problem solving exercise. If a team member gets stuck, you can show them how you would work through the problem and together you can generate solutions. One solution to the dirty instrument problem would be to have a nightly check off sheet that the closing technician has to perform and a morning checklist for the opening technician to perform. Perhaps you, as the leader, can communicate better with the team the importance of having enough sterile supplies to make it through the day. Make sure all the technicians know how to clean the instruments appropriately, how to pack the packs and how to run the autoclave machine.
- Group solutions into categories. Once a list of solutions exists, ask your technician or receptionist to put the solutions in categories. This is an organization tool. By organizing solutions, one may find an approach that stands out more than the others. The categories to fit the solutions above are communication, training and protocols.
- Prioritize into an action plan. This is when the team works together to decide which ideas or categories to act on. The solution categories can be ranked in any way that works for the team. For example, put the easiest solution to implement or the cheapest solution at the top of the priority list. Perhaps the first step to fixing this problem is to have a short training to enforce how to clean, pack and work the autoclave so you are sure all of the technicians know how to perform the task. It will take time that you may or may not have, and how often are all of your technicians at the clinic at the same time? A faster solution may be to create the morning and evening checklists. Just remember that if you create a checklist, someone should follow up every now and then to make sure technicians are not just checking things off.
- Implement a solution. Implement the solution that you and your team think will be most effective in solving the problem. See how the solution that the group chose works. Pick one solution that you think would work for the problem at hand and implement it. The checklist is the fastest and easiest to implement.
- Assign monitoring responsibilities. Once the solution is in place you need someone to keep track as to whether it is solving the problem. In assigning one of your team members to monitor the solution you are giving him or her some ownership in the solution. This will empower your team with self-accountability. If the solution doesn’t work, they will have to explain why or what went wrong. If you chose the checklist as the solution, make sure that you also choose someone to monitor that the checklists are being completed. This person would make sure the checklists are getting filled out and that the tasks are getting completed.
- If desired results are not met, implement another solution. If the first solution doesn’t work, take a step back, talk to the team and try a different solution from the list. Your head tech has been keeping track of the checklists and they notice that two of the newer technicians often aren’t cleaning the instruments. This gives you an idea that maybe it is time to retrain those specific technicians on how to make sure packs are ready for surgery. Finding a time where two people can be retrained is easier than finding time for five to seven people to be retrained.
By giving ownership to your team to help solve the problems, you can be seen as a more engaging leader, even if you have a hard time being assertive. If a passive leader can ask his or her team to help solve a problem they not only empower the team, but also take that first step to being a more effective leader. Remember, assertiveness is a spectrum and you can take small steps to help you get to the good-leader part of the spectrum.
Going the Extra Mile
No matter how good of a leader you are, or how well your team works together, you can always do a little bit better. And, it can be hard to find the right way to admit mistakes. There is a professional way and there are several steps:
- Admit the mistake. Don’t be afraid of being judged. Admitting the mistake is an opportunity to make something right. This is a great way to lead by example.
- Use “I” language. By using the “I” language you show that you are willing to accept not only the mistake but the consequences that come with making the mistake. If you’ve yelled at a technician for something you later discover wasn’t their fault, say “I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” It shows integrity and that you are willing to make things right.
- Offer an apology and help with any cleanup that needs to be done. Saying “I’m sorry,” can make a world of difference. This is an opportunity to own the mistake and help make it right. Maybe you forgot to highlight that a treatment needed to be made and that’s why it wasn’t done. Apologize to your technician, “I’m sorry I didn’t highlight the treatment and then yelled at you because it wasn’t done.”
- Take damage-control actions (if necessary). It is necessary not only to fix the mistake but to make sure there is not further fallout from the mistake.
- Don’t shift blame to the employees. This is a prime time to be the example and show your team that everyone is in the boat together. Think of a time when you may have been blamed for something that you didn’t do. You probably got angry. But if you, as the leader, take the blame for your mistake you are setting a great precedence for yourself and team. If you are talking to a receptionist about something that went wrong, don’t say that the technician missed a treatment. A better way to approach it would be to say “we messed up and missed a treatment today.”
- Avoid excuses. By avoiding excuses, you fix the problem and shift to a new behavior. This new behavior will help focus on fixing mistakes in the future. If you make excuses for the mistake, the focus is more on the excuse rather than the fix. Owners leave their animals with us so that we can take care of the animals. Owners won’t care if we are busy as long as they feel their animal is getting the best care. So when something happens, say “I messed up and didn’t get the treatment done appropriately today.” Saying that you were busy is an excuse and not one that an owner wants to hear.
- Review the situation and what went wrong. Learn from your mistake! Look back and analyze what went wrong to avoid making the mistake a second time. You may be more diligent about marking treatments if you forget once.
- Return to business as usual. It is important to not hold past mistakes against yourself, or your team. It is far worse for people to be afraid to try something because of the repercussions of a mistake than for people to be willing to try and fail but try again. This is a great way to show your team that one can learn from failure and move on.
When you take ownership for your mistakes, you not only help to build trust between you and your staff, but you also show that you are a person of integrity. You could take it a little further and have meetings where everyone shares their mistakes for the week and what they learned from them. Being open and honest about mistakes will help create an atmosphere where people will look for the lessons rather than fear being judged. Your staff will more likely follow in your steps and then the clinic will run smoother than ever before!
Being an assertive leader is not just about making yourself more assertive but also helping to facilitate an atmosphere of teamwork and assertiveness in your practice. If by giving your technicians, receptionists and other support staff ownership in the clinic’s goals they are able to point things out that could help achieve those goals or keep you on track, you are doing a good job. Even small changes can make a world of difference.