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Trust your team to be great

Autonomy, a sense of purpose and well-timed feedback can elevate your employees to the next level of performance.

Trust your team to be great
Trust forms the backdrop that makes autonomy, mastery and purpose possible.

I’ve been lucky recently to have had really good conversations with practice owners and managers about workplace culture. Inevitably, we get around to discussing why people do certain things in the clinic. In particular, why do some team members seem able to take the initiative when others need more structure and guidance before they take a step forward?

In some clinics, for example, staff members (often nurses) take it upon themselves to inventory and reorganize supplies or develop a more efficient client-intake form. For the most part, these actions help make everyone’s life better.

Through my conversations and from reading author Daniel H. Pink, I learned about three patterns in go-getter employees.

Each of the patterns below has to be cultivated long before the change opportunity presents itself.

  • The employees felt they had management’s blessing to make changes. They enjoyed a certain level of autonomy.
  • They got better at something — their job. They were driven to mastery.
  • Making things better for everyone, not just themselves, and improving lives gave them a sense of purpose.

It’s All About Trust

Each action is done irrespective of bonus pay or another incentive. In fact, if an external motivator, such as money, is used to incentivize activities, an employee will be less motivated to perform the activity. Money demotivates creative behavior and does not incentivize it.

One of the most important things to remember is the need for trust. Trust forms the backdrop that makes autonomy, mastery and purpose possible. Only in the most highly functioning clinics do we find deep levels of trust that help the team function almost effortlessly. Sometimes, trust results from haphazard chance, but more often than not, it’s an intentional effort (conscious or not) by the management team.

Sometimes, practice owners are predisposed to trust their employees and, as a consequence, the team feels the trust and tries to never violate it. In other situations, intentional trust is built over time through a series of low-risk situations in which employees demonstrate their trustworthiness. These situations lead to medium-risk situations in which employees exercise more autonomy and more control. This leads to higher-risk situations and even deeper trust situations in which employees demonstrate high levels of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

A nice side benefit of this process is that practice owners and managers are free to focus on growing the business and spend less time putting out fires.

Learn to Cultivate Greatness

Some employers think that great team members are born great and are fixed in their disposition, but the fact is a series of experiences cultivate the growth of greatness in employees. The experiences could be part of a clinic’s employee development program.

Here’s how it can work from the management perspective:

  • Understand the level of autonomy the employee is comfortable with.
  • Ask which job responsibilities really matter to the employee. One way to put it is, “Tell me about a time when you felt really good about your work here.” You might give the person a week or so to answer.
  • Look for examples of when the employee did something positive that can be modeled.
  • Assign a task that might be at the limit of the employee’s comfort zone. Assure the employee that missing the mark won’t result in any punishment.
  • Provide plenty of feedback and course corrections throughout the task.
  • After the task is completed, share what went well or not and how the task might be done differently next time.
  • Repeat the process during successively more complicated, creative or risky assignments.

The kind of programmatic change outlined above might be a bit much to ask, but sometimes we need quick wins to improve our team members’ lives.

Focusing on two kinds of habits can improve a team’s culture. The following is inspired by Stanford University behavior scientist Dr. B.J. Fogg.

1. Tiny Habits

Sometimes, a task is too daunting to even think about starting it. For example, some clinics shuck needles en masse or make all their client reminder calls in a single day. The enormity of the task, repeated over and over, can be overwhelming and demotivating.

Dr. Fogg explains that nobody really likes to floss their teeth. Flossing is a bit of a pain and doesn’t seem to have an ultimate endpoint. Because flossing needs to be repeated again and again for each tooth, getting motivated to do it every night is difficult.

Dr. Fogg advises a simple mental shift: Don’t floss a mouthful, just commit to flossing one tooth. That’s it: one tooth. Then when the tooth is flossed, celebrate a little — not too much; just a little “yes!” Once you get over the mental commitment hurdle, flossing another tooth, and then another and another, becomes pretty easy.

The feeling of accomplishing a goal creates a virtuous cycle. With any repetitive, monumental task, focus on committing to one needle or one phone call, and then celebrate that you’ve set a goal and achieved it. Let that virtuous cycle kick in, and commit to another needle or phone call, and then another and another.

2. Stacking Habits

Think about an important task that you never seem to accomplish. For example, you know that acknowledging the efforts of your employees is important, but some days are just so busy and so many lives are on the line that it doesn’t occur to you to make the acknowledgment. This is where stacking habits can be helpful.

The procedure is relatively simple. Start with something you do at least a few times a day, such as using the restroom, checking your email or walking through a particular doorway. Then think to yourself as you sit in your office, “When I walk out of my office, I am going to thank one of my nurses for [fill in the blank].” Every time you walk out of your office, you will do what you wanted to accomplish.

Another great idea I’ve heard is this: Post a large calendar near the staff exit. Then ask team members to use the calendar on their way out to write about something good that happened to them that day.

It’s so easy to stew about work challenges on our way home and then unload on our loved ones. As we head to work the next day, we remember the last negative thing from the previous day. But if we shift how we’re evolutionarily shaped to think and instead focus on the good things, like the previous day’s highlight, we will continually create a positive, more productive work environment.

Bonus tip: Employers should make sure to thoroughly read the calendar posts. What employees write tells you what matters to them. Your job is to make more of these events happen.

Dr. Aaron Massecar is assistant director of continuing education at Colorado State University’s Translational Medicine Institute.