Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is the president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc., director of veterinary practice management at Mission Veterinary Partners, and founder of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. His column won first place in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.Read Articles Written by Mark Opperman
If I offered you $100 to eat a live bug, would you? No? Would you do it if I promised $200 or $300? Neither I nor anyone else can motivate people to do something they don’t want to do. However, we can create an environment that spurs someone to take on a task we want the person to accomplish. Rather than motivate team members, too many veterinary practice managers and owners demotivate them.
Ask yourself this question: During their tenure, when are employees most motivated? The answer, you’ll find, is when they’re first employed. They’re excited about the job, they get to work with animals, and for many, it’s what they always wanted to do. Unfortunately, we then tell them all the things they do wrong:
- “I can’t believe they didn’t teach you that in school.”
- “No, that’s wrong; don’t do it again.”
- “Have Kathy show you how to do it.”
Managers and practice owners sometimes tear down employees and demotivate them to the point that they fear doing anything on their own. They even might think about leaving your practice.
First Things First
So, what is motivation? How do we create a motivating environment for employees? Let’s start with a definition. Motivation is an internally generated force that compels someone to accomplish a specific task. The key element is the internally generated force. We cannot motivate someone to do anything, but we can create an environment where they hopefully become motivated.
These five factors must be present to ensure a motivated employee:
- Fulfillment of one’s basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. People nervous about feeding themselves and their children every night aren’t motivated in their jobs.
- A healthy work environment.
- Security in one’s employment. Employees who think their clinic is going out of business or fear an imminent firing aren’t motivated.
- Knowledge and ability to do the work. Training and job descriptions show what is expected of employees.
- Knowledge of policies and procedures. Provide team members with a comprehensive employee manual and review it with them.
Once we set the stage, the next step is to incorporate tried and proven techniques to help motivate team members.
A Job Well Done
Positive reinforcement is the most effective motivational tool wielded by managers and practice owners. It can be simple praise, a thank you, a pat on the back, or showing and saying we appreciate the work someone does. Positive reinforcement must be immediate, sincere and appropriate. Telling everyone at the end of the day, “Good job, team,” isn’t positive reinforcement. Instead, you should identify something a team member did that went over and above normal expectations. As someone told me, you don’t want to reinforce a person for simply converting oxygen into carbon dioxide every day.
Here’s a great example of effective positive reinforcement. An amazing surgical technician of mine — let’s call him Dave — was a “10” employee on a scale of 1 to 10. Dave scheduled vacation time to attend his brother’s wedding in Colorado, but I heard through the grapevine that Dave couldn’t afford the plane ticket. A few days before Dave’s vacation was to start, a bloat patient arrived when we were short-staffed. Although Dave worked the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, he took an interest in the case and stayed the night at our 24-hour hospital. He was still there at 8 a.m. the next day. Because he had punched out at 4 p.m., I wouldn’t have known about Dave’s marathon workday if not for the grapevine.
When I found out, I called Dave into my office and asked why he had stayed all night. He explained that he had taken a special interest because he loved the Great Dane and was concerned. He also said he had punched out and didn’t expect to be paid for the extra hours.
At that point, I told Dave how impressed I was. That he cared so much about a patient to want to stay all night was extraordinary. I informed him that I’d pay for all his hours and that I had a present to show how much I appreciated his actions and compassion.
The gift was a round-trip plane ticket to Colorado. Dave was blown away and very appreciative. He flew to Colorado, attended his brother’s wedding and enjoyed the vacation.
About five years later, I was about to leave the hospital. I conducted interviews with many employees, including Dave, as part of my exit. I asked Dave, “What makes you tick? Why are you such an amazing employee?” I’ll never forget his response.
“Well, let me tell you,” Dave began. “I truly enjoy my work here. You’re a great boss, supportive and fair. You challenge us to be our best and let us know how much you appreciate us. But there was a time I was thinking of going to work at a human hospital. That was about the time my brother got married. Do you remember what you did?”
“I gave you a plane ticket to Colorado,” I responded.
“That was awesome,” he said, “and it made me realize how much you cared for me as an individual and that if you cared that much, I could certainly care that much about you and this hospital. That’s why I am still here.”
Wow! That is positive reinforcement.
Find an employee action that exceeds your expectations and reward it. Maybe not with a plane ticket, but perhaps with a movie pass, gift card, dinner at a nice restaurant or box of chocolates. The type of gift isn’t as crucial as your recognition of a team member exceeding expectations.
When Doubts Emerge
While writing this article, my son Aaron stopped by to talk to me. He recently graduated from nursing school and got the job of his dreams in the oncology ward of a children’s hospital. He’s in training at the hospital, and every day he’s assigned a senior nurse to work with specific patients.
Aaron told me that his assigned nurse was very supportive at the beginning of the week. She took time to explain things and seemed to care about him. Then yesterday, a different supervising nurse wasn’t so nice. She had a problem with everything he did. Actions he had been praised for a day earlier were wrong now, and the nurse told him several times, “That’s not how we do things here.”
Aaron felt confused and incompetent. Moreover, the supervising nurse pointedly excluded him from conversations with other nurses.
“She didn’t say one positive thing to me all day,” Aaron told me.
Because of the negative experience, he was second-guessing whether to stay at the hospital and hoped he wouldn’t have to work with the supervising nurse again.
Aaron’s encounter is what I’m getting at. He was an employee who was motivated and excited to work. He went to school for four years and finally got to do what he wanted, but he was getting beaten down in his first weeks of employment. He felt demotivated.
I felt bad for Aaron and told him to “Hang in there.” Hopefully, his additional training won’t involve the same nurse.
A rule of management is to reinforce the positive and ignore the negative unless the negative is so bad that you must deal with it. If you prioritize looking for opportunities to reinforce your employees, you’ll be amazed at how effective and fun it can be.