Veterinary team engagement can be a challenge. Sometimes, it can be difficult to get staff members to communicate and open up when asked to engage. After a recent presentation on leadership and empowerment, one veterinary practice owner said to me, “When I ask my team, ‘What do you want?’ all I get are crickets! What do I do?”
It’s not uncommon to receive little to no response when a team is asked engaging questions. Here are a few suggestions for managers, team leaders, and owners to minimize the crickets.
1) Give the team time
Before you ask staff to engage in an open conversation, allow people time to reflect on the topic and formulate their answers. Few team members will answer when presented with a new idea—those who do tend to dominate the conversation whenever they have the opportunity. The idea is to allow for all to participate.
For example, if you are going to have a meeting on Thursday where you would like feedback on a particular topic, give them an article or support material on Monday, along with a few questions you will be asking during the meeting. This ensures team members understand the topic, can formulate their answers, and are more willing to speak their mind.
Even though the dominating team members will pipe up, systematically ask them all for their input. If you have a large team, divide them into smaller groups (three to five people) and identify a scribe who will relay the conversation to set them up for engagement success.
2) Start with low-risk conversations
Don’t seek engagement the first week on topics such as embezzlement or team members behaving badly. It’s almost guaranteed you will get crickets. Instead, start with low-risk topics, such as creating a suggestion box or planning a weekend photo session with clients and their dogs. High-risk conversations may include the incorrect count of a Class III drug or creating a policy on drug screening. Lighter, “safer” topics are best. You can then transition to more involved conversations as your team begins to build trust and open communication skills.
It is important to first build trust with the veterinary team. Trust is one of those concepts team members and management want, but rarely discuss or consciously try to improve. That said, trust can be built on small acts. Consider asking your team, perhaps during an upcoming meeting, how they define trust and how they could consciously improve it. It seems like a simple question, but I have seen team members (young and vintage) struggle with defining trust. Make sure to give them time to think about this first before asking for definitions.
Be sure to thank them for speaking up. Acknowledge their input by saying something like, “I appreciate your idea in putting together a gratitude jar. That sounds like a win-win suggestion.”
3) Create a safe place to engage
This can be one of the biggest barriers for people speaking up. If they don’t feel like the meeting is a safe environment to voice their opinions, no amount of time or low-risk conversations will change their minds.
Team members won’t speak up if they’ve been told in the past, “That has been tried before and it was a failure!” Or, “We cannot implement that because… (fill in the blank).” When you ask the team to offer their suggestions, don’t shoot them down.
Amy Edmondson, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School, defines “psychological safety” as “a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.” If your team members don’t speak up when they should, it might be because of the response they receive when sharing ideas.
A response that is met with criticism, immediate shutdown, or even a demand for all the details of how the idea is to be successful, is not going to allow for a level of comfort or willingness to share from your team.
Allow staff the courtesy of listening without immediate judgment. Give them time to “toss out ideas and determine what will stick later.” This includes not interrupting the speaker, either by you or anyone else on the team. As a leader, if you allow other team members to interrupt someone speaking, it sets a negative atmosphere of not being respectful to each other.
It won’t surprise you this type of culture starts with your leadership team. Having organizational structure and system processes in place is going to set the stage for your meetings. The leadership needs to establish driving principles or values supporting an environment of psychological safety and trust. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is crucial so the entire team knows what to expect.
Providing this safe environment starts at the individual level and must be cultivated every day. Once the safety of the individual is established, there is hope to improve overall engagement on your team. An environment that has psychological safety allows a team to express themselves without fear. They are enabled to experiment and take risks without fear of judgment or reprimands.
4) Follow-through is crucial
There is nothing more demoralizing than asking your team for their input and not taking action. Once ideas have been considered and a plan put in place, it must be seen to fruition. If it isn’t, future discussions will be compromised. As a leader or manager, think ahead of how conversations will be captured, who will be accountable for completing a project/task/event, and how progress will be monitored.
There are tools available to assist, including SMART goal planning. View a free SMART Goal course on designing and bringing those ideas and projects to completion.
The area of follow-through is another point where trust can be built or destroyed. By following through on your commitments, it shows you are trustworthy. If you ask your team to engage and offer their input without any intention of completing the task or project, you have set everyone up for failure.
Once a plan has been established, show your team you are willing and able to engage with them and take their suggestions seriously. Communicate the stages of the plan on a regular basis. If a deadline can’t be met, let the team know the reason why and what corrections are being made.
People understand circumstances arise that derail even the most thought-out ideas. Without proper communication of these hiccups, the team assumes all is well and on schedule. Continued communication is key to keeping staff in the loop about their ideas.
Employee engagement is something to consistently strive for in the workplace. We want team members to be enthusiastic participants. If you are struggling with engagement in your hospital, you might want to look at how much time people have to think about new situations, the possibility you are jumping into serious conversations too fast, the state of your hospital’s psychological safety, and whether there is follow-through and proper communication back to team members.
The benefits of having engaged workers is a list that includes improved staff retention (which results in fewer new hires), less sick time, and higher hospital profitability. When engagement happens, teams are generally happier and willing to contribute to the practice’s overall mission.
Rebecca Rose, CVT, certified career coach, founder, and president at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community. She has worked in and managed clinics, collaborates with industry partners, and facilitates engaging team workshops. Rose’s enthusiasm for professional development in veterinary medicine is contagious, as she encourages and supports veterinary teams in reaching their highest potential. She can be reached via getCATALYST@CATALYSTVetPC.com.