Columns , Leadership

How to conduct a practice-culture audit

Spoken and unspoken messages say a lot about a veterinary team’s assumptions, values and beliefs.

How to conduct a practice-culture audit

If you’ve owned, managed or worked at a particular veterinary practice for any length of time, you may be so used to the workplace culture that you can’t effectively define it, much less analyze its strengths and weaknesses. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly normal.

Having said this, it makes good sense for your practice to conduct a culture audit in which you examine the assumptions, values and beliefs shared by people in the practice. This allows you to develop the healthiest culture possible for your practice, one in which the practice and individual team members can thrive and grow, and where the best service possible is offered to clients and their pets.

Organizational culture is composed of all the elements of the environment of your veterinary practice. This includes the life experiences of each employee, along with how these experiences blend and how they clash. Add to this mix the influence of the veterinarians’ belief systems and life experiences, and the result is the practice’s culture.

Danger of Unspoken Messages

People sometimes believe that culture is created through the spoken messages provided, including the policies stated by the veterinarians and the conversations occurring among employees. This is partly true, but culture is largely formed by unspoken messages received about what is valued by the practice.

So, to improve workplace culture, you need to observe employee behavior and determine what is considered acceptable. You’ll need to change unacceptable behaviors.

For example, your policy handbook may say that gossip about clients is not permitted. But if, in reality, employees roll their eyes about clients and then laugh — and if that is allowed to continue to happen — then your culture is pro-gossip, not anti-gossip, even if no words are spoken.

This example also highlights the importance of performing a culture audit. At its core, a culture audit identifies messages conveyed, and then assesses whether they are the ones you want to impart and how consistent or inconsistent they are. This information will help provide the insight you need to develop a healthier workplace culture.

Before You Start

As you begin to read more about workplace cultures, you will find ones that you admire and ones that you don’t. It’s good to be able to identify what you want as part of your own culture (and what you don’t!). But, as the CEO and co-founder of UrbanBound, Michael Krasman, pointed out in a 2015 article titled “Successful Entrepreneurs Understand the Importance of Company Culture”: “Be true to who you are. Don’t define your company’s culture by the catchphrase of the day.”

He also warned against creating a “grandiose vision and mission” that isn’t true to what you’re actually doing.

Performing a Culture Audit

You can gather information for your culture audit in multiple ways, and it’s more effective if you use more than one information-gathering method. To begin, it makes sense to simply observe your practice. Now that you’ve got a watchful eye, what are you noticing about the messages that are shared among team members and between them and your clients? Are they ones you want to impart?

You can interview employees, both individually and as part of small focus groups. You can provide employees with surveys in which they can choose to be anonymous. If someone wants to share information with you but isn’t sure how you would respond, she most likely will feel more comfortable with an anonymous survey.

Hiring a consultant to get an impartial observer’s impressions often makes sense. You are so close to what’s happening in your practice that being objective may be difficult. This is especially true if your culture needs improvements, but it also can be true at a practice where the workplace culture is largely positive and effective.

Throughout the process, notice how people are behaving. Note what they do, and then try to determine why they are doing what they do. What belief systems are driving their behaviors? As just one example, are they not trying to improve processes in the practice because they’re convinced that others won’t change what they’re doing? If so, how objectively true is that?

Assess the current procedures. How well do they dovetail with the verbal messages you are giving relevant team members? Perhaps, for example, you are telling your receptionists that nothing is more important than the client who is in front of them at the moment. That’s a great message, but if you expect the same person to answer the phone while checking in a new client, how realistic is it for him to provide a client with his undivided attention?

Take a good, hard look at how you are using your finite resources, including time and money, and compare that against your ideal scenario. How close are you to the ideal? Where do disparities exist? Look at how you reward employees, how you develop them as leaders and how you promote them. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it should get you started.

Other Questions to Ask Yourself

Consider your communication style and whether you’re happy with it. Do you simply make announcements and expect your employees to run with them? Or do you solicit feedback and empower employees? What is your risk tolerance? Does your client service style match your practice’s stated vision and values? How do your clients talk about your practice? Are you happy with what you hear? What is your competition doing well? Not so well?

Once the audit is complete, you can compare your ideal culture to today’s actual culture. Once those gaps are identified, you can begin to create a plan to improve your practice’s culture so that it’s a healthy one, and one that well serves the practice itself, the team members and the clients and their pets.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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