Turn Your Ineffective
Group Into An Impressive Team
McVey, MA, MSW
the author’s permission from the original seen in Firstline
July 1, 2010.
You're all working hard, but are you working together? You
might just be a group of people in the same clinic. Here's how
to build a real team…
If you work at a veterinary
practice, you work on a team, right? Wrong. Just because you
work with other people doesn't mean you and your co-workers are
functioning as a team. I've worked with a lot of veterinary
practices, and at almost every one I've had to educate staff
members about what teamwork is.
Many teams are really just groups
that pay lip service to teamwork. These groups know what
teamwork means in spirit, but they don't always know what it
means in action or how to make it happen.
The essence of teamwork is giving up
your individual goals so you all can move forward as a cohesive
unit. This can be scary stuff, especially if there are some
so-called team members who aren't participating. But you must
change your team's group mentality for the good of your
practice, patients, clients, and your own happiness.
The first step is drilling down to the differences between a
group and a team. Check out the chart: "Telltale signs your team
is just a group”, below. Do any of those situations sound
familiar? If so, you're most likely working in a group.
Employees work independently
Example: Staff members say, “It’s not my job,” and
isolate themselves in their duties.
Employees work at cross purposes
Example: Staff members feel like their co-workers are
creating more work for them.
Employees don’t know their roles
Example: No one is accountable, because no one
understands who’s supposed to do what.
Employees focus on themselves
Example: Staff members put their individual goals
before practice goals.
Employees don’t trust one
Example: Staff members hoard knowledge in order to
Employees don’t feel ownership
Examples: Staff members are told what to do rather
than being involved in the creation of goals. Suggestions
get shot down.
Employees don’t feel
Example: Staff meetings are silent because people are afraid
to make suggestions or ask questions.
Conflict goes unresolved
Example: Owners and managers know about drama and
problems in the practice but choose to ignore them.
You know it's a group when...
On a team that's merely going
through the motions, you'll find receptionists in the front and
technicians in the back. Even though these employees work
together, they don't necessarily pay any attention to each
other. They block out others around them to focus on their own
duties. And it's no wonder, because they're probably making each
other's jobs more difficult.
All this is problematic because, as
veterinary team members, your days are filled with a series of
handoffs. These handoffs happen every time a client travels from
a receptionist to a technician or a veterinarian to a veterinary
assistant and so on. And each handoff is an opportunity to make
a mistake. Here's an example:
When a client arrives at the clinic,
a receptionist greets her. That receptionist needs to let a
technician know the client has arrived. But the receptionist
might not get the pet's name right when she talks to the
technician. The technician is embarrassed when she incorrectly
refers to the pet. At checkout, the technician takes the chart
to the front desk and fails to mention that the client needs to
schedule a follow-up appointment. These two team members have
just created more work for each other, not to mention created a
bad experience for the client.
Now, the receptionist or veterinary
technician in the above scenario might have a suggestion for
ensuring these handoff mistakes don't happen again. But, in a
group, neither will share because they're both either uninspired
or know their ideas will go unheard. Or maybe they're afraid. In
many groups, team members keep quiet because they fear being
labeled unsupportive, getting socially ostracized, or dealing
with the boss's wrath.
All this leads to distrust. Staff
members in groups can't be sure whether their colleagues are
working to elevate the team or destroy individuals. An example
is a practice that provides solid training then keeps team
members from applying the knowledge to their job. This happens
because doctors, managers, team members, or all of the above,
feel threatened when co-workers demonstrate their skills.
Another sign you're working in a
group: When conflict happens, no one at your hospital knows how
to resolve it. After all, group members can't take their
disagreements to a manager, because supervisors put off
intervention until after serious damage occurs.
As a result of all this, people in
groups keep their heads down. They focus on themselves. And
we're back to the root cause of failed teamwork.
Why groups happen
It's not that veterinary team
members who work in groups are unskilled, unsupportive people
who can't be trusted. Instead, they're victims of a systemless
practice. Just what systems are missing and what should be done?
First off, owners and managers must communicate what each team
member's role entails and the value of that role in terms of the
services the practice provides. Then managers must implement a
way to hold team members accountable for completing their duties
and doing their part.
Think back to the example of the
botched handoff between the receptionist and technician. If the
client in that situation complained and a manager asked the
group what went wrong, employees in the group would look at the
ground and say, "I don't know." On a true team, co-workers would
be able to look the manager in the eye and say, "Here's what
happened." They'd know exactly where the breakdown occurred
because they know who's responsible for what and why it matters.
Plus they'd feel comfortable acknowledging the problems because
they're confident the team will look for solutions rather than
Another essential system to create is a process for involving
employees in practice planning and goal setting. When team
members are told what to do rather than asked for suggestions,
they check out. They lack a feeling of ownership over their
jobs. Including them in meaningful decisions means they'll take
responsibility for ensuring things get done right.
Finally, employees morph into groups
rather than teams when management hasn't outlined a protocol for
dealing with conflict. Avoiding conflict slows down your
practice and creates a toxic environment. When groups turn
toxic, the practice owner or manager needs to take control. If
two team members were fighting in my hospital, I'd take them
aside separately and say, "I don't know what's happening with
the two of you, but now it's my problem. Everyone can feel the
negative energy around both of you." And if the doctor is part
of the problem, you need to pull him or her aside and say, "Do
you want me to do this job, or would you like to keep sabotaging
This sounds harsh, but it's time
veterinary professionals recognize that conflict is an
opportunity to learn and try something new. You're not required
to love your fellow veterinary team members. But if you're
interested in helping people and pets, you need to learn to
How teams work
On a true team, staff members
recognize that conflict is inevitable and a normal part of human
interaction. Many veterinary employees chose to work with
animals because human interactions don't interest them. But you
can't be called a professional if you don't know how to work
with people in veterinary medicine. As such, members of a team
use open, honest communication. They make an effort to
understand the other person's point of view rather than
automatically responding—silently or out loud—with, "No, I'm not
People working on a team recognize
they're dependent on each other. They understand that working
together allows them to accomplish practice goals, as well as
personal ones. Fully functioning team members work in a climate
of trust where they encourage the open expression of ideas,
opinions, disagreements, and feelings. They welcome questions.
Turning into a team
Now that you understand the
differences between groups and teams, let's look at how to
create a team atmosphere. There are three critical elements:
1. Equality. Obviously
there's a pecking order of doctor, manager, and so on. But in
healthy practices, equality exists in terms of access to one
another and in the absence of double standards. No one says,
"The rules don't apply to me because I'm at the top. The rules
don't apply to me because I have a skill nobody else has. The
rules don't apply to me because I've been here longer." There
should be no untouchables in your practice.
2. Problem orientation. This
means that team members look for problems to solve. Yes, they
actually search for areas where systems are broken. Then they
encourage communication about solutions.
3. Sensitivity. This is key
to encouraging communication. Too often veterinary professionals
are sensitive to animals but not to one another. Or we're
hypersensitive and we feel everything. We need to be sensitive
to people's struggles on the job and sensitive to problems we
can fix, but not take all the things personally that happen in
Now that you're armed with info, you
don't have to let "groupthink" weigh you down. If you're
operating in a group, it's time to take a close look at your
relationships and take steps to come together. Remember that you
go to work to serve pets and their owners, and creating an
effective team is the only way to do it right..