Meeting Magic: How to Run Successful Staff Meetings

Debbie D. Barton, DVM, MA

During 31 years in private practice, I have witnessed staff meetings characterized by dynamic dialog as well as those veiled in silence. I have shared in employee celebrations and been asked to address the causes of financial hardship. I have seen tears of joy and tears of sadness. Along with coworkers, I have been asked to embrace and implement change. In my own practice, I struggled to create a culture of collaboration.

A successful staff meeting offers opportunities to present new information, announce changes in policies and procedures, introduce new team members, and develop strong interpersonal bonds. It takes an investment of dollars and energy to identify strategies to share information and build community: agenda-setting, scheduling, meeting minutes, committee and task force formation, mandatory attendance, and even food choices are among issues to be worked out.

Here are some suggestions to ensure your team’s staff meetings are worth the investment.

Embrace Diversity
Each team member is unique. Gender, generation, personality type, ethnic background, and experiences all impact who we are, how we think, and how we behave. Recognizing diversity as a strength will enable staff members to consider a broad range of perspectives and to blend ideas, even those that are seemingly contradictory. Make a conscious effort to avoid closing out team members who may fear being judged by those with differing viewpoints.

Try this:

  • Encourage participation by all staff members, regardless of position, length of employment, or personality. Some individuals may hesitate to speak up because they are new to the practice team or because their personality is naturally more introverted (see In Praise of “Introvets,” page 14). Ask team members to prepare a question in advance about a practice policy or procedure. This will generate discussion that can help affirm all employees’ importance to the team, while simultaneously addressing the practice challenge.
  • Maintain a culture of safety during meetings by assuring that ideas will be considered equally. A proactive approach to a judgment-free practice culture includes staff education on the topic—a perfect continuing education topic in itself for a staff meeting. Once we understand that judgment of self and others is commonplace, why people race to judge, and the impact it has on our happiness, we can begin to practice new behaviors. When inevitable differences of opinion occur, staff members should “objectify” the issue by phrasing their comment as an observation rather than a statement of disagreement.1
  • Express gratitude for all contributions. Say, “Thank you for your input; that really helps.” Or, “I never thought of it that way!”

Who’s in Charge?
Most veterinary practices are structured as hierarchies, with leadership and ultimate power at the top—the practice owner. Staff meetings often mirror this hierarchy, but delegating authority so that others will take responsibility for planning and implementation of new policies and procedures will allow employees to feel empowered. Delegation can feel like risky business for a practice owner, but the first step to success in delegation is to choose the right people for the team. Encourage dialogue to identify individuals with a desire to take on added responsibility and a willingness to develop the skills needed to lead the way.

Try this:

  • Prepare “new business” items for the agenda by soliciting input from staff members. Leaders should take an inclusive approach in accepting items for consideration to avoid feelings of favoritism and bias.
  • Have interested team members rotate the responsibility of leading meetings. I encourage leaders designated for an upcoming meeting to prepare the agenda in advance from items submitted by the practice owner and coworkers. Employees will then have time to clarify agenda items while expressing interest and planning the time to be allotted to address each item.
  • Select team members to be responsible for food on a rotating basis. Offering food at a staff meeting makes a statement about how much the staff is cared about. Employees feel satisfied, relaxed, and ready to engage in the business of the meeting. A potluck-style meal serves a similar purpose, but also provides an opportunity for self-expression, and can also offer an opportunity to promote healthy eating.

Motivation
Employees are motivated by both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. In his book Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment, Kenneth Thomas describes strategies to secure employee compliance through tangible rewards such as salaries, bonuses, and benefits. He discovered that these extrinsic rewards fell far short in creating enduring commitment and initiative. They also fail to appeal to passion and do not enlist the intelligence of workers. Visible progress resulting from individual accomplishments, and trust in the practice’s commitment to continuing education and training, feeds competence.1

Try this:

  • In addressing a practice challenge, encourage team members to list possible solutions. Then choose the best idea at the current meeting, or give the team more time by placing it on the next agenda for further discussion.
  • Share data that show progress toward a previously set goal.
  • Allow at least one staff member to tell a story about a successful patient and/or client outcome at every staff meeting. These heartfelt stories provide a real life illustration of how we are achieving our purpose in providing excellent care and service to our patients and clients.


Conflict
Conflict occurs when either misunderstanding or disagreement pose barriers to resolution of differences—two very different phenomena. Misunderstandings are resolved through effective communication, while disagreement is resolved with negotiation. Veterinary team members have different perspectives that generate different opinions regarding practice issues. Resolution and progress can only occur when leaders encourage dialog without judgment.

Try this:

  • Collaborate to set ground rules for communication during staff meetings. I like to reemphasize the overarching purpose of our work at each staff meeting. When emotions run high, everyone understands that the leader can call a time out, and questions can be asked to explore individual viewpoints, not opinions.
  • Listen. Listen intently not only to words for their meaning, but also to tone of voice, speed of speaking, and nonverbal communication such as body posture and eye contact. If you feel emotions such as anger and frustration start to impact your ability to listen and think, take a deep breath. Let the speaker know you are listening by maintaining eye contact to signal understanding. Follow up with questions to clarify your understanding.
  • Encourage the expression of feelings. They are at the center of conflict. Training in conflict management provides staff members with tools they can use for a lifetime, with clients and also in their personal lives. A guest speaker trained in conflict management can provide the expertise needed to teach skills and enhance knowledge.

Change
Staff meeting agendas often include requests for change. Meeting minutes document commitment to these changes and the action plans developed to carry them out. Why do we find ourselves weeks down the road with barely a recollection of the changes discussed? The majority of change efforts fail because the change has not been “sold” to those it will impact and no one has thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people.2 By creating a sense of urgency, and helping others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately, the stage can be set for organizational change.3 Follow-up in the form of “short-term wins” permits visualization of success and what the future will look like. Changes in behavior are driven by changed thinking, and even more importantly, changed feelings.

Try this:

  • Include “old business” in your agenda so it can be reviewed and responsible team members held accountable. Further discussion or adjustments may be necessary.
  • Set the stage for small steps toward a goal. This allows “practice” of proposed changes while they are becoming assimilated into the practice culture. Celebrate milestones at each staff meeting!
  • Allow time during staff meetings for employees to tell stories about their coworkers’ successes toward a team goal.

No one would argue that in veterinary practice, we can’t do our work alone. Staff meetings provide a forum for communication that unites us as a team and reinforces the overarching practice purpose.

Multitasking: Motivate While Problem-Solving

Our practice struggled to find a way to guarantee that client phone calls are returned promptly, and that doctors call owners with lab and radiology reports as they are received. This was submitted as an agenda item for a recent staff meeting. Each of our staffing areas (receptionists, technicians, and veterinarians) was passionate about the challenge, and each had their own perspectives and ideas for solutions. The receptionists felt abused, since they take the brunt of calls from upset owners. Doctors felt overworked, since they are busy with patients and have to make calls after hours. Technicians were concerned that the patients receive needed treatments in a timely manner. After a lively discussion, during which everyone had a chance to vent frustrations and describe their viewpoints, we made a list of things to try. Among the suggestions:

1. Receptionists will triage phone messages (arranging them in order of urgency) by color coding them.

2. Doctors will delegate the less urgent calls to our technicians, making sure that clients know the doctor can call them back at their request.

3. Lunch hours for our veterinarians will be extended by 30 minutes to create protected time for charts and calls.

4. The veterinarian who is scheduled as the surgery and treatment doctor is also responsible for client calls for lab and radiograph results on cases seen by other veterinarians not scheduled to work that day.

5. For nonurgent diagnostic workups, such as senior wellness blood work, clients’ expectations are adjusted when they are told they will be called within a few days.

We agreed to try these new ideas, and talk about our success and needs to make further adjustments at our next meeting. It feels better already!

Dr. Barton practices small animal medicine and surgery at the South Care Animal Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. She earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership and certification in Servant Leadership at Gonzaga University.

References
1. Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment. Thomas KW. Berrett-Koehler, 2002, pp 42-46.
2. Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. Kotter J. St. Martin’s Press, 2005, p 130.
3. Managing Transitions. Bridges W. Da Capo Press, 2003, p 37.
 

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