Don’t Hit Eject Too Soon! Ways to Improve Your Veterinary Clinic Without Firing Anyone
Taking on the management or ownership of a practice and/or team can be an enormous task. No matter how good a practice is, the quality of the team can make or break a business. therefore, a poorly performing team can be a big problem.
Whilst firing ‘problem people’ is an obvious course of action for underperforming clinics where team trouble is rife, this should not be viewed as the go-to solution. Termination is a generally unpleasant, potentially lengthy, and quite possibly unnecessary process.
So how can practices improve their services without firing staff?
Ways to Improve Your Veterinary Clinic Without Firing Anyone
So how can managers and/or owners improve veterinary clinics without firing underperforming staff? At the heart of this question is how people cope with change. But how can change be navigated when humans at their very core are resistant to it?
Whilst change often brings innovation and prosperity, the process of transition can come with great anxieties about the unknown. This generally makes individuals change-resistant. An issue that can become particularly problematic when taking on a new practice, as it can stunt team growth and create conflict as team members try to maintain the ‘comfort’ of the status quo.
To demonstrate how this can be overcome, let’s refer to Tuckman’s Team-Development Model.
Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 Team-Development Model
Tuckman’s Team-Development Model was developed in 1965¹. The model explains how teams develop in ability and maturity over time and indicates the leadership skills and style adaptations that are needed throughout this transition.
There are four stages to this transition: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
Forming is the stage whereby the team experiences a new situation for the first time. This happens during the early days of transition and brings about feelings of excitement and anxiety for the team, as no one knows quite what to do or expect.
Storming is the stage where negative feelings about the transition flare, causing anxiety and confusion within the team. Roles and relationships are being established, leading to conflict and tension. This stage is often the most chaotic.
Norming is the stage where all the new changes start to bed in and become the default. Emotions are settling down at this stage as the team are getting accustomed to the new way of life. Patterns and processes emerge and trust builds between team members.
Performing is the final stage. If everything goes well, during this stage, leaders should start seeing the results they desire. As processes are learned, new insight appears and things are improved, people work collaboratively and trust soars. The team is now delivering results at a high level of competence.
Which stage best describes your practice? Sadly many veterinary teams get stuck in the storming and norming stages, which can create problems in the long term.
How to Navigate the Team-Development Model and Instigate Successful Change
Frequently, when staff are underperforming, the first course of action should be listening and learning what is going on.
If staff are underperforming, it’s probably not because they are incapable of working well under new direction but because they simply don’t understand clearly what is required of them, lack the skills, or buy into the practice’s new vision. (In many vet hospitals, they may not even be aware of the vision).
By using Tuckman’s team development model, leaders can essentially redirect and retrain their staff in a way that unifies rather than divides.
It’s not in a leader’s best interest to fire team members left, right and centre. Aside from crushing trust in management, rehiring is also time-consuming and might well be an unnecessary waste of resources.
How to Create a Good Team
To improve a vet practice without firing staff, leaders first need to overcome the forming stage.
When forming, leaders should present a clear purpose and vision for their team. Everyone should understand why specific directing decisions are being made, taking the mystique (and fear) out of change.
Management should not approach this in a way that attacks or detracts from existing staff members, as this will only cause resentment and disdain. Rather, leaders should maintain an open dialogue, which presents a clear purpose, whilst acknowledging general concerns. Leaders should listen, acknowledge fears and answer questions with clear reasoning and logic.
Arguably, the storming stage will be the most tumultuous. However, when strong feelings rear their head, leaders should take an empathetic approach.
Management should practice empathy with their team. They are likely just a bit confused as to what’s going on and are anxious about what the new normal means for them. In many cases, people will be worried about failing and/or losing their jobs, or losing power and status. However irrational these fears seem, leaving them unaddressed can result in the appearance of highly disruptive self-serving behaviors in the team.
During this period, leaders should sit down with their staff and go over any concerns they have. Listening and allowing others to ask questions is key. Constructively approach this stage, and be open to critique. This will allow staff to vent and raise concerns. Doing so will cool the emotional temperature and allow rational arguments to gain a foothold.
Whilst the forming stage is all about conveying objectives, this stage is all about entrenching them.
During this stage, leaders must train and mentor their staff. Leaders should help the team to create or adopt the new normal and display a total commitment to the protocols and procedures expected. In other words- walk the walk, not just talk the talk!
The more thorough and well-planned this stage is, the more confidence the team will have. Once the team is comfortable with their new roles, they will transition to the next stage.
After investing all that time and energy into the team, this stage is where leaders will see the fruits of their efforts.
Everyone should be used to their roles and begin to take initiative. Leaders should start taking a step back, allowing the team to be accountable for their work.
Like a parent teaching a child to walk, for a practice to thrive, leaders must let go of their teammates’ hands and let them walk on their own. The goal is for them to be self-sufficient and independent.
The leadership style management should adopt is that of a coach (or cheerleader) offering advice and insight but letting the team do their work.
Although it can be tempting to fire dissenters and start over when taking on a new practice as a leader, this is a costly and in many cases unnecessary action.
Instead, leaders should paint a clear vision of the future, then use situational leadership techniques to help move the team from fear and resistance to acceptance and engagement. There will inevitably be wobbles as nothing in the field of leadership is straightforward. And, of course, if there are still issues with mutinous staff members (those who are actively causing conflict within the team despite your best efforts) it is only then that termination should be considered.
However, this is uncommon, as conflict typically can be resolved with courage, good listening skills, empathy and reasoned decision-making.
Want to learn more about leadership? Check out Dr. Dave Nicol’s 60-minute webinar covering the top mistakes veterinary leaders make and how to avoid them. Dr. Dave crams 20-years of leadership experience into one webinar, giving leaders the tools they need to thrive in their careers.
Check it out here.