Featured , Leadership

When the problem is the problem finder

Chronic complainers within a practice can be toxic. Learn to develop a workplace full of problem solvers.

When the problem is the problem finder
Chronic complainers and can be downright toxic at a veterinary practice.

The practice manager, Jaime, is busy working on payroll in her office when the following conversation takes place with a technician named Cory.

Jaime: Oh, hi, Cory. How are you?

Cory: Fine. (Silence)

Jaime: Can I help you?

Cory: Well, it would be nice to actually get a break from work and eat lunch in peace.

Jaime: Why can’t you do that?

Cory: It’s too busy. Plus, once again, nobody put the inventory away, so that fell on me. Again!

Jaime: Can you eat lunch now?

Cory: And another thing. Mrs. Smith called twice because Dr. Stan didn’t call her back — as if that’s MY fault — and then that new lab tech didn’t write the results of that yippy Pomeranian’s labs in the chart, and ….

You know the type. The person who never met a complaint he or she wasn’t willing to embrace. The type who can invent brand-new complaints on the spot.

So, what do you do? Allow me to define a problem finder and show you how to deal with chronic complainers in a way that’s ultimately productive for your veterinary practice.

Problems Ad Nauseam

The scenario above is fictional but one that plays out in a rainbow of variations at workplaces across America. Problem finders are people who continuously want to talk about problems. They are, in fact, chronic complainers and can be downright toxic at a veterinary practice.

The negativity that these employees project can spread throughout the practice and magnify small annoyances. Problems are made to seem worse than they really are and can even appear insolvable. As employees hear this seemingly constant stream of complaints, some of them might end up responding, “Well, if you think your last appointment was bad, just listen to what happened to me.”

The situation can become a downward spiral of employees recalling every little negative thing that happened that day, leading to cynicism and even a sense of hopelessness. In that type of environment, why would employees try to come up with creative solutions? The ideas won’t work, right? Just ask the problem finder and the people he or she has infected with negativity and they’ll let you know how impossible innovative fixes really are. This also puts the most negative people in the practice at the center of interpersonal exchanges, creating cliques and damaging relationships.

In short, you don’t want this kind of practice environment.

Constructive Complaining

If you are a manager at a practice with a problem finder, be careful not to fall into the complaining trap yourself. Does this mean you shouldn’t talk about what’s negative at work? Of course not. Problems need to be discussed before they can be fixed, but you must be constructive in your framing of issues.

Constructive tips include:

  • Make sure a problem actually needs to be discussed.
  • Target the real problem, not a symptom of a problem.
  • Find the best time to discuss the issue, then discuss it with the right group of people.
  • Before you discuss an issue, verify that you’re sharing it with someone who can be part of the solution.
  • Be willing to acknowledge you are wrong if feedback indicates that you’re the only person who has a problem with a particular issue. If so, find ways to adjust your expectations.

A Three-Step Approach

Here’s how to address problem finders:

  1. Be aware that ignoring a chronic complainer will not work, at least not as a long-term solution. Unless they are effectively addressed, problem finders will continue to spread negativity.
  2. Don’t go to the chronic complainer first about changes at the practice. Notifying the complainer right away might seem logical because you would have a chance to diffuse the situation before you announce it to everyone. What you would be doing, however, is giving the most negative people in your practice a position of power, which is not what you want.
  3. Don’t automatically agree with the problem finder. You assume the complainer just wants to be heard and that he or she wants people to agree with what’s being said. The issue is that if you always agree, the problem finder will seek you out each time for validation. You’ll always be the one to hear how Bob forgot to turn out the lights, how Jose was slow at the desk again, and how Rita — well, you know Rita ….

Another downside to the agreement approach is that the complainer might tell Marla and Bob and Jose and Rita — and anyone else who will listen — how you agreed with the complaints.

Put Policies in Writing

Instead, create clear standards for what’s expected at your practice, including performance and behavior requirements, and create an environment where employees are held accountable for their actions. All relevant policies and procedures must be in the employee handbook, they should be reviewed annually, and they need to be shared with all new employees during onboarding.

Also do this:

  • Observe how employees handle situations when they’re unhappy, and role-model the appropriate way to seek solutions. The more engaged managers and supervisors are with everyone at the practice, the less likely that a problem finder can complain at will under the radar.
  • Be straightforward in how you communicate with all employees, and solicit suggestions about how to further improve your workplace culture so that it’s positive and productive.
  • Work directly with problem finders and share with them how damaging their chronic complaining can be in the workplace. Review with them the constructive behaviors that are expected at your practice. Share ways that he or she can raise concerns and brainstorm solutions without reverting to harmful complaining. Praise the employee for using positive ways to deal with workplace issues, but also note when the behaviors revert. In the latter case, document how you’ve worked with the employee and, when necessary, follow the disciplinary process up to and including the termination of chronic complainers who don’t modify their behaviors.

Develop Problem Solvers

Getting chronic complaining under control is a significant step for your practice, but it’s not enough. To create a truly productive workplace culture, you have to encourage and support the development of problem solving and maintain that environment.

As with all behavioral changes, managers, supervisors and veterinarians must model the behaviors they want to see, set clear expectations and embody them at work. Provide strategies for problem solving — perhaps at your monthly employee training sessions — and then transfer the responsibility for problem solving to the team.

It’s unrealistic for practice managers to expect that they will brainstorm solutions and then never get involved again. So, create parameters to help the veterinary team understand the types of problems they are empowered to solve and the situations that necessitate a manager’s involvement. In the new workplace culture of being problem solvers, employees should present situations in a way that includes potential solutions.

The mindset should be that once a problem reaches a certain level, an employee is not required to singlehandedly solve the issue but is part of the solution team. As employees gain confidence with their abilities to solve problems, the process will become more natural for them.

Get to the Source

At a high level, problem solvers can clearly define a real problem. This can mean getting past the emotion of the situation and delving into the heart of the challenge. For example, the “problem” of Sharon “always” being late might be that traffic is heavy when she needs to transfer her preschooler to day care at lunchtime. And, if that’s true for Sharon, what other time constraints are causing related issues at work?

Once the root of a problem is uncovered, the solutions that the team brainstorms are far more likely to help. For example, sending Sharon to time-management classes won’t help if the reality is that she needs help juggling home and work responsibilities. However, allowing her to be the one who comes in 30 minutes earlier in the day to ready the practice for appointments and giving her a longer lunch break might solve Sharon’s time-related problem and result in the practice being set up more effectively.

Finally, after a solution has been time-tested, determine what else can be learned from the experience. You will discover that when your practice effectively addresses problem finders and converts them into problem solvers, the possibilities for improvement are endless.

Kellie Olah is a human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors Inc.

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