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Veterinary Dilemmas: How To Manage Poor Performance At Work

Underperformers can cause a lot of grief for managers and business owners. When someone doesn’t pull their weight in practice, it can cause delays, stress, and tension.

Though it can be frustrating, there are many reasons why someone may be performing at a sub-par level. Whether that’s due to confidence, inexperience, or misdirection, how you manage underperformers in practice is important if you want to see positive results.

In this article, we discuss how to manage poor performance at work- without killing everyone’s mojo in the process.

How To Manage Poor Performance At Work

Reframing Performance Management

Often, the reason why veterinary leaders struggle with underperformance is due to the fact they lack the processes needed to handle it.

When most practice owners and managers think of performance management, they think of the disciplinary side. You know, what happens AFTER something goes wrong, and you are having a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with a wayward employee.

But this is not what we should consider performance management. The disciplinary action described above is often the result of an upstream performance management failure.

Performance management should instead be considered as the very heart of your people and work management operating system.

It’s the series of scheduled and off-the-cuff actions that help everyone on your team understand what their work is, how to do it well, and how to tell if they are achieving the required standard; plus what to do to course-correct should things stray off track.

At the heart of this system are five main activities. Goal setting, training/action, measurement, feedback, and recognition/reward.

Goal Setting

Effective performance management begins with clear goal-setting.

The reason why veterinary professionals struggle with their role in practice has less to do with their skills and more with their lack of clear direction.

If your team doesn’t understand their roles and how their job fits into the bigger organizational picture, they are far more likely, indeed almost inevitably going to struggle to meet the required (yet invisible) standard.

Effective leaders ensure that all roles have a set of clear objectives that describe what things an individual must achieve in their work in order to be successful. Most jobs can be suitably captured in 10-12 objectives which follow the S.M.A.R.T. convention and therefore allow clarity for both employee and manager about expectations.

Invest In Training

In veterinary medicine, we work hard to hire staff but often neglect to train our people effectively once they start working with us. New starters, if they are lucky, may get some training on workplace operations (at best!). But more likely they are left to sink or swim, learning by trial and error as they work out ‘how we do things around here’.

Would you go on a long hike in unknown terrain without a map? Of course not! So why would you get someone to do a job without training and expect a great outcome?

Without proper training, most people are going to be unconsciously incompetent, and thus be more prone to be labeled as underperformers. This is something practice owner and VetX CEO Dr. Dave Nicol has observed before.

‘It’s a huge mistake to assume competence- better to assume people are starting from zero and train things the way you want them to be done. I’ve been in multiple situations where practice owners are exasperated about the way a technique is being performed by a colleague, but when quizzed on it, they haven’t actually ever been given training- they left it to chance.’

Working like this increases the chance of a mistake happening and risks reputational damage for individuals and the practice.

Instead, build an onboarding training program and use ongoing performance meetings to identify learning opportunities to continue skill growth. Doing anything less risks setting teammates up to fail.

Measure Performance & Give Feedback 

Performance measurement is the only way to objectively assess someone’s progress. But it is of little to no use if we don’t share these findings through feedback.

If you are struggling with an underperformer, ask yourself:

  • Have I made it abundantly clear what my expectations are? Do they know what we are measuring as a marker of success, and can they easily access this measurement?

If not, then this may be why you’re in this situation in the first place.

As Dr. Nicol explains:

‘If a doctor is not performing neutering operations as fast as you would like… that may be a problem as it clogs up the schedule.’

Feedback to help the team member improve is essential. Such feedback is best presented objectively, allowing little room for argument about the result, or the improvement needed. The savvy leader can then use a more facilitative coaching style to help the doctor explore the challenges, asking questions and formulating their own plan for improvement.

Some example exploratory questions might be:

  • What went well during the operation today?

  • What did not go as you would have liked?

  • What reasons might there be for these things?

  • When you are next faced with this situation, what will you do differently to move closer to meeting the target?

  • What help or support do you need to get there?

Having short and regular feedback and coaching conversations helps facilitate trust between teams and their leaders. A habit all leaders should bake into their routine.

Rewards And Recognition

The final ingredient to this secret sauce of performance success is utilizing positive reinforcement.

Human behavior is all too often driven by some form of incentive. Although financial rewards have their place in practice, recognition trumps reward in the long run. While a bonus or pay rise can make someone feel good in the moment, recognition makes people feel valued, appreciated, and capable on a much deeper level.

Recognition is a great motivator as it meets many of our intrinsic needs. Praise for a job well done, or for behaviors that support culture, should be a fundamental and frequent part of your feedback process. It costs nothing but has a massive impact.

And yes, pay your people fairly for their work too!

When Performance Management Falls Flat

So what if you are doing all these things, yet you still have an underperformer on your hands?

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will have individuals on the team who don’t match your business values or simply do not have the skills needed for the role they are being asked to perform.

In these circumstances, you are going to have to bite the bullet and accept that things are not working. Is there a more suitable role for this person in your practice? Or are they just a bad fit entirely?

What you do next depends a lot on where you live (due to legislative and cultural variations) and is beyond the scope of this article. But know that the conflict avoidance pathway of doing nothing is a very bad decision. One with negative consequences that compound over time.

Better, and kinder, to all to deal with organizational misfits quickly, and compassionately so everyone can move on.

Of course, it is better to hire well in the first place, so your chances of this happening are vastly reduced.

Want to improve your veterinary leadership skills? Why not register for our FREE webinar, 'How to Run a Successful Veterinary Practice, Without All the Drama', and start your leadership journey today:


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