Sometimes when you do as I do and speak, write books, run practices and coach teams it’s easy for people to assume that you are naturally amazing and have mastered all of the skills of business, leadership and life itself.
Though I dearly wish that this were true, sadly it is not - nowhere near. Thankfully life, if we chose to be aware, provides many reminders of this fact each day.
One such moment occurred recently as I was taking my daughter to the swimming pool. She was perched on my shoulders with a bird’s eye view of what was about to unfold.
We were walking past a line of vans all apparently stuck in a small traffic jam. “Stuck" is something I struggle to resist both as a vet and as a small business owner. So it was that the tooting horns and frustrated yelling got my attention.
As I approached the front of the line I could see that the problem was a delivery truck blocking one side of the road, while on the other side a car was very parked very badly in a loading bay. It jutted out into the road, reducing the space for other vehicles to pass to a very tight couple of metres.
The driver of the next van in the line did not seem confident of squeezing through this gap and so had stopped - causing a jam. And the emotional temperature of the other drivers was rapidly heating up.
As I passed the lead vehicle looking to see if I could help, a man (the owner of the obstructing car I presumed) approached the vehicle. "Great!", I thought. Problem solved.
But then he unexpectedly made what I considered to be a poor decision. Rather than get in and move his vehicle, he walked out in front of his car and assessed the space available to the van clearly concluding that the driver of the van was capable of getting through the gap and so began enthusiastically directing him to do so.
The van driver clearly did not want to do this but, motivated by the impatient horn blowing from behind and the cajoling of the car driver in front, began inching forward. The car driver was frustrated at this hesitant behaviour as he could see that the van could get through. As such, he was growing impatient himself and things looked like they might boil up.
Looking on from the side, I was perturbed by the picture and felt myself becoming irritated. Why was the car driver not taking the smart course of action, owning his parking error and moving his vehicle? If he repositioned his car then the problem would be solved and everyone could get on with their day.
Instead, he appeared to be blaming the van driver for being unable to navigate his vehicle through the available space.
My “THAT'S NOT FAIR” trigger - the product of years of watching Scottish sports teams succumb to last minute, jarring defeats when they should have won - was well and truely kicking in and I was in danger of treading on a relationship landmine.
My self-righteous sub-persona grabbed my control stick and I moved to take action. This van driver might not be the best driver in the world, but he deserved better and I was going to let the car driver know what I thought of his action and direct him to move his car.
And then, as I strode forward and started to open my mouth to administer the required, righteous tongue lashing - my training kicked in.
Inside I wanted to scream at the idiot before me. But moments before I did so, I summoned my curious sub-persona and he was able to wrestle my control stick back just in time. I slowed my pace and breathing as I approached the man (now doing his best traffic cop impression). Instead of telling him what he ought to be doing, I was able to dig down and find a question.
“Why can’t the car be moved closer to the kerb?” I asked.
It wasn’t the best question and it still carried a whiff of accusation, but it was a fair thing to ask given the circumstances and a heck a lot better than the alternative!
“I wish we could, but I don’t know who it belongs to”, came the reply. And in an instant, I saw this man was my guru.
Now, instead of making a complete fool of myself, I had a clearer picture of what was happening. The man directing had actually jumped out of a van further back in the queue and was totally owning the problem by assisting the stuck van.
I felt sheepish for a second, but not longer. As I walked away from the situation I was grateful to the universe for providing the opportunity to reinforce my emotional control (a crucial leadership skill) and let the van driver solve his own problem - which he did effectively.
Fixing things can break your practice
Often, in the rush to solve problems in veterinary practice, we make a series of judgements that influence our behaviour. Sometimes we might hit the nail on the head. But other times, if we are wide of the target, then we are going to cause problems, damage relationships and risk our reputation and effectiveness as leaders.
This urge to fix everything is a major cause of tension in veterinary practices and results in behaviours that contribute to the creation of a toxic blame culture. Taking over, micromanaging and blaming others when things go wrong without a full picture of what happened are damaging and demotivating daily occurrences.
So what’s a better way to handle our thoughts and actions in the whirlwind environment of a veterinary practice?
Seek first to understand
Here’s my strategy for how to deal with challenges broken down into components.
1. Recognise you are being drawn into a dangerous emotional trap that is a high stakes game. This requires some self-analysis as to what your triggers are, then training to recognise them.
2. Divert your emotion - in this case I went from frustration and anger to curiosity. This takes training, however.
3. Ask open ended questions of those involved to help everyone gain a clearer understanding of the problem. Here are some helpful examples:
How long has it been going on?
What did you first notice?
What do you think is happening?
What else might be happening here that you haven’t considered?
Who is involved?
4. Ask what the plan is to solve the problem and ask further questions until you are clear that the person or team have a firm grasp of what they need to do.
5. If the plan sounds OK (even if it’s not perfect), then let the person or team get on with it. If the plan does not sound OK or is non-existent, then you have permission to take the opportunity to get into training mode. But try not to take over if possible.
6. Check in to see how they got on.
This is a highly effective process that all leaders should build into their repertoire - a foundation block of effective performance management. Plus it’s also the way you escape from your hamster wheel.
When you use this strategy to solve problems then you get to win four times over.
1. You build your skills as a leader.
2. Your team builds their skills and decision-making abilities.
3. Your investment in helping the team to solve their own problems means they will start to do this on their own in future without your support. So you have just created time to work on bigger and better things - arguably the most valuable gift.
But there is one final long-term reward of this approach if you can pull it off. As a leader, you are a role model so your team will look to and mirror your behaviour as a leader. Good leader behaviour will likely lead to good team behaviours. And bad will lead to bad.
So the final thing I was grateful for, was the opportunity to demonstrate some good behaviour to my most important “client" of all, the four-year-old perched on my shoulders.
If you can relate to any of this story and feel like you get dragged into poor situations because your emotional responses are not as good as they could be, then please get in touch about how I can help you build your leadership skills through analysis of your triggers and creation of emotional buffer zone in which to deploy new leadership strategies.
I help owners, managers and clinical leaders in veterinary practices learn these skills and help them create a positive work environment, eliminate blame culture and build performance fast. Drop me an email to schedule a chat about how this might work for you.