The Can-Do Charter
Artists create beauty by coloring outside the lines. What if your veterinary team could do — and be — so much more?
I had the opportunity a few years ago to buy into a partnership acquiring a multidoctor small animal hospital. The practice had been privately owned for all of its 30-plus years.
During one of our early meetings with the owner-doctor, he enthusiastically showed us his policy book, a 3-inch binder overflowing with sheet after sheet of rules and regulations, each initialed by every staff member. A staunch proponent of the philosophy that leaders “Never let the inmates run the asylum,” he responded to every issue, concern, snafu or gaffe by creating a policy. He’d spend hours typing up each new guideline and inserting it in “The Book.” In his mind, if he could control his employees’ every move, he’d lead a perfect veterinary team.
His employees made sure every day to check The Book for new policies. When they found one, they read it thoroughly and initialed it. Everyone was expected to adhere to the new policies.
Keep in mind, The Book included policies above and beyond the standard legal requirements found in any employee handbook. Page after page provided guidelines and restrictions on requesting time off, scheduling new clients, saying what was acceptable to clients and more.
As I read through the massive tome, I found certain words repeated ad nauseam. Words such as “must,” “should,” “can’t” and “don’t.”
This was a coloring book filled with clear lines and terrible consequences for straying outside of them.
Never let the inmates run the asylum.
The Freedom to Achieve
Don’t get me wrong, policies and procedures are important. Role clarity directly correlates to job performance, work satisfaction and reduced turnover. However, research shows that when people feel controlled and severely limited — when rules abolish any meaningful sense of autonomy — motivation, commitment and job loyalty plummet. The result is a disengaged team that will jump ship at the next opportunity. Boxed-in people do not go above and beyond.
The problem here was not policies and procedures, but both the mindset and what was absent as a result.
When we see employees as inmates who must be controlled, we restrict their sense of autonomy and place a cap on what they will — and can — achieve. A list of musts, shoulds and can’ts is a recipe for a disengaged and numb team doing its best to not get in trouble.
Guidelines are wonderful for keeping us in line, but they cut off our access to the fertile ground of unexplored territory. Employees, teams and hospitals do not discover the reaches of their potential when constricted by can’ts and don’ts. They get there armed with the possibilities offered only by “can.”
I hear one word over and over during my work with Flourish Veterinary Consulting. Chances are, it resonates with you as well. The word is accountability.
Often, our vast, robust and wordy policies and rules are an attempt to instill accountability into hospital culture. At first, we might think the words will set people straight. When we realize that inmates will do what inmates do, we find comfort in referring to the written policy during performance improvement conversations. When something happens that annoys or upsets us and is not covered in the handbook, we write a new policy or revise an old one.
And so the cycle goes. Build rules. Enforce them. Add new ones. Enforce them. On and on. Before long, we’ve got our version of The Book — massive, unruly and patronizing to the adults on our team.
That is what happened at General Motors.
Over the years, as perceptions of professionalism failed to evolve at the pace of cultural appearance norms, the section in GM’s employee manual pertaining to appropriate work attire grew and grew. To 10 pages.
That’s right, the rules for what was acceptable to wear at work took up 10 entire pages. Until Mary Barra became CEO.
One of her early acts, setting the tone for the culture she’d support during her tenure, was to revise the clothing and appearance policy. She wanted to streamline and simplify it, not to mention dignify the policy in the eyes of her employees. So, she tossed out the 10-page section and replaced it with two words: “Dress appropriately.”
Many managers cheered. Some nearly revolted. Several complained, often loudly. What did “Dress appropriately” even mean? To many, it felt nebulous and unenforceable.
One manager called Mary to vent that many members of his team now regularly wore jeans. He was concerned that if they wore jeans to important client meetings, the perceived unprofessionalism would embarrass him as their manager.
Mary genuinely listened. She could hear his very real concern and she could empathize. And then she asked, “Have you spoken to your team about this?” To which he responded with a curt “No.”
She suggested he sit down with his team and share his concerns. As their leader, he should be able to facilitate a discussion and let his team decide how to respond. After all, they were adults.
He took his concerns to his team members. They responded, well, like adults. They decided as a team that they would continue wearing jeans to work. And they would keep a pair of “nicer” clothes at work for important meetings.
If that’s not accountability, I don’t know what is.
For many of us, accountability is something objective, like following rules or facing tangible consequences.
I think accountability is a relational phenomenon. When you care about me and I care about you, we are both far more likely to behave in a way that resembles accountability.
Consider something like honesty. I don’t need to sign a handbook stating I’ll be honest with my friends. They care about me and I them, which is more than enough to keep me accountable to them in my words and actions.
When the GM manager engaged his team in an adult conversation and authentically expressed his concerns, he connected with them in a way no handbook or policy list ever could. And they responded accordingly.
Trust Your Team
The first year when Mary Barra served as CEO, GM enjoyed record sales despite a historic problem with a recall. She attributed much of this to the shift in culture. Ten pages of rules about appearance had set a cultural tone of “can’t do.” But when she replaced the restrictive guidelines, she shifted the culture, choosing to dignify people with the expansive energy of “can.” Instead of telling people what they couldn’t wear, she empowered them with possibility — “You can dress appropriately. And I trust you to do so.”
If we want people to rise above the minimum requirements of their work and strive toward their potential, we need to instill in them the comfort and safety of doing so. People empowered to take ownership of their work do better work. Together, they create effective teams and veterinary hospitals.
Treat folks like inmates and you’ll end up a prison guard. If we learn to treat our team like artists free to explore the boundaries of their potential, they’ll create a beautiful symphony.
How do you build a team like that? Here are three steps to get you started.
1. Conduct a Can’t-Do Audit
Some guidelines, like “Dress appropriately,” require more than two words. Still, there’s a fine line between helping folks succeed and making them feel restricted and controlled. A can’t-do audit is your genuine effort to look for where you might be leaning into restrictive leadership. The goal of the audit is to identify all the policies, procedures and rules that tell your team what they “can’t do.” Begin by working through your employee handbook and, if you have one, The Book. Mark or highlight all the “can’t dos.”
Next, list all the unwritten rules in your hospital. For example, when the practice manager’s door was shut at one hospital I worked with, everyone knew not to knock. The rule wasn’t written anywhere, but the team knew a closed door meant “Do not disturb short of an emergency.”
Finally, pick a few people on your team whose perspective you value and who can be honest with you. Ask them, “Which rules or policies in our hospital make you feel the most restricted?”
2. Simplify the Rules
What made Barra’s policy change so effective was its simplicity. First, GM’s regulation about appearance bordered on dictatorial. Furthermore, people have difficulty figuring out what they should do when they have to navigate and interpret 10 pages of rules.
Review the rules you find during your can’t-do audit and get a feel for the whole of it. Then, consider how you might simplify the rules. Can you edit any repetitive or overlapping rules? Can you simplify the language and reduce the number of words? Can you more concisely explain what you want? And what about changing can’t-do rules to expectation guidelines? For example, instead of a rule that states, “If the door is shut, do not disturb,” perhaps the expectation could be something like, “The manager’s office will always be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Outside of these hours, please come in when a matter is urgent.”
3. Build a Can-Do Charter
At the last hospital I managed — a seven-day-a-week, seven-doctor practice — every client concern or issue came directly to me. The problems seemed to have two themes: They typically required a simple solution, such as empathetically listening to a client, and they always popped up when I was elbows deep in another project.
Needless to say, the burden of me being the primary problem solver in a team of over 40 people was frustrating. It also was a burden of my creation.
Looking back, I realize that I had established an unwritten rule: “Only Josh, the manager, can handle client issues.” In other words, if you’re not Josh, you can’t do it. Talk about disempowering.
I know of a hospital that takes a very different approach to client complaints. The culture is such that everyone is empowered to solve client problems to the best of his or her ability. Everyone is trained on client communication and trusted to do as well with it as any other adult working in the hospital. In most cases, the team handles these things just as well or better than “The Boss.” On a few occasions, this has meant someone like a client service representative taking the initiative and discounting services. Without the boss’s approval!
The hospital created a can-do charter, one that isn’t explicitly written. Were it written, the “rule” around client concerns might look something like this: “Take any reasonable steps you feel are necessary to take care of our clients.”
That’s an empowering, trusting guideline that energizes people to do their best. Instead of allowing “the inmates” to lead the asylum astray, guidelines like that accomplish two important things:
- They build autonomy in the hospital culture, a critical factor in workplace engagement and job satisfaction.
- They allow leaders to lead.
On occasion at this hospital, an employee might go too far in a reasonable effort to take care of a client. For example, giving a discount beyond what the manager might deem appropriate. Many managers would respond with a stern talk and a new rule. This one, on the other hand, responds first with curiosity:
“I see you gave Mrs. Smith a 50% discount. Help me understand what led to that decision.”
The answer often makes sense and the manager thanks the employee for the effort. Sometimes, the manager disagrees. But what a wonderful opportunity for a manager and an employee to have a productive conversation.
In the end, the manager is likely to express her disagreement, explain why and still thank the employee for trying, assured that the employee will do her best the next time in a way more befitting the goal of a can-do guideline.
You can build a can-do charter like that for your team. Keep these ideas in mind:
- Look for opportunities to construct a brief list of guidelines that empower team members and help them to see what they can do instead of where they are restricted.
- Approach the guidelines with a mindset that asks, “What is my goal?” instead of “What am I trying to prevent?”
- Start with one can-do guideline. Write it down with the goal in mind and then share it with your team. They can even role-play scenarios. Just remember, you’re not trying to restrict your team members. If they role-play in a way you disagree with, choose curiosity over correction.
There were times at my last practice when I felt completely alone despite being surrounded by over 40 of my peers. In retrospect, I realize I felt that way because I took the full weight of responsibility for the practice onto my shoulders. When I thought I was supporting my team members, I was doing the opposite by removing their autonomy and inadvertently showing them mistrust. I was basically telling them, “You can’t handle client issues, so I will.”
In the end, my approach created unpleasantness and disengagement for them. For me, it contributed to burnout.
You and your team deserve better. You CAN do it!
Josh Vaisman is the co-founder of Flourish Veterinary Consulting, where he is a positive psychology practitioner and a positive leadership and culture consultant. He combines more than 20 years of veterinary experience and a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology to empower veterinary organizations in cultivating environments where employees thrive. He is a certified compassion fatigue professional.