3 Steps to a Cohesive Workplace Culture
My first trip to England was a real adventure.
Among the many memorable experiences, I’ll never forget navigating London’s subway system, affectionately known as, “The Underground.”
I grew up in north-central Wisconsin. For the last ten years I’ve called the 14,000 person town of Firestone, CO my home. Being in London, in and of itself, is like nothing out of my daily life. The Underground? Now that’s an exciting departure from my typical commute!
Everywhere you go in the maze, deep underground, of London’s subway system you see (and hear!) messages reminding you to, “Mind the gap!”
It’s a famous statement, intimately tied to the Underground, like a cultural relic. And it actually serves a purpose.
You see, between the subway platform and the train exists a gap. Small enough to be easily ignored but big enough to be a real danger for the countless people passing over it. Failure to “mind the gap” could result in an embarrassing attempt at acrobatics (as you attempt to stall your tripping) or worse, serious injury.
Similarly, failure to mind the gap in our veterinary hospitals can result in serious cultural damage. Only the gap here isn’t so easily seen.
Failure to "Mind the Gap" in our veterinary hospitals can result in serious cultural damage.
It’s the gap between our intended practice culture and the one we actually have.
And here’s the kicker – every single veterinary hospital has cultural gaps. Much of the time, we don’t see it, don’t know it, or worst of all just plain ignore it.
What does the gap look like in a vet practice?
Here are a few examples of gaps I’ve seen:
A hospital owner, genuinely concerned about preventing burnout in his team, talks to the them about the importance of work/life balance. He prides himself on bucking the trend of “suck it up and do it” in veterinary medicine. Yet, minimal paid time off is offered and is limited to full time employees only. Requests for time off are as likely to be declined as they are accepted. Furthermore, little support is provided for things like day care and doctors are expected to finish all their records that day, in the hospital, before leaving.
A practice manager believes strongly in the mantra of teamwork. She regularly says the phrase, “together we are better,” and advocates for team members to support each other’s growth and abilities. Yet, one technician consistently demands doing all the work alone, consistently stepping in while muttering, “if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Having been the most technically talented tech for several years, the manager turns a blind eye, fearful of losing “our best tech”.
A medical director, passionate about patient care and improving the quality of medicine, establishes an open door policy with the entire hospital team. “If you any opportunity, “ she says, “to improve our medicine and patient care, come to me. Even if it means admitting a mistake or asking for help. You will not be punished.” Yet, she also has a 3-strike policy that dictates, anyone who makes 3 mistakes, of any kind, will be subject to discipline up to and including termination.
I’ve seen versions of all three of the above examples in veterinary hospitals everywhere I go. They are common – and I’m sure you may even recognize one or two within your own hospital.
And in every one of them exists a gap between what is said or intended, and what is actually happening.
Sometimes the cultural gaps are innocuous or have minimal consequences.
For example, if the employee handbooks says “5 minutes early is on time” but everyone clocks in 1 minute early and you do nothing about it, it’s not likely to lead to deeply harmful behaviors, a toxic work environment, or the technicians revolting and refusing to work.
Sometimes, though, the gaps have real negative impacts on the actual workplace culture.
If you speak of work/life balance, but provide the bare minimum time off and have employees regularly “working late” a significant gap exists and the message being sent is clear – “work is more important than life here."
If you speak of teamwork but tolerate “me-first” behavior a significant gap exists and the message being sent is clear – “if you’re the top performer you live by a different set of rules.”
If you advocate an open door policy but punish people for making mistakes a significant gap exists and the message being sent is clear – “being perfect is more important than getting better and if you’re not perfect, you’re not long for this place.”
Whenever these kinds of gaps exists they cause stress throughout the team. And this kind of stress can lead directly to absenteeism, burnout, and “good people” leaving the hospital (or industry entirely!) for greener pastures.
If you want to cultivate a hospital culture that supports team effectiveness and longevity, and maximizes the opportunity for workplace wellbeing, you’ve got to Mind the Gap(s).
Here are three simple steps to get you started:
Clarify – What do you actually want your hospital’s culture to look like? Is work/life balance actually important to you? What about teamwork? Or an open door policy? And if so, what do those things look like to you? Work/life balance might mean one thing to me and something totally different to you. So, list out the values that fit your intended culture and hash them out in as much detail as possible. For each one, ask yourself two questions – what are the behaviors I’ll see that tell me this is actually happening here & what are the behaviors I’ll see that will tell me this isn’t actually happening here? When you’re done, share it with your team.
Measure – The one major problem with intention is that human beings aren’t mind readers. As much as we’d love our teams to know exactly what we’re thinking, they don’t. They do, however, make meaning out of everything their leaders and managers do. So find out what their meaning making systems are up to in your hospital’s culture. Ask them what they believe the culture in your practice is really about. Find out where they think the handbook and the “real world” diverge. Then dig in and explore what behaviors in your and your leadership team might be sending the wrong message. Use this information (and you’re newly Clarified values) to close the gaps. And don’t just do this once, do it regularly. Annually at least, more frequently if you can.
Act – Now that you’ve Clarified the culture you really want to foster, and you’ve Measured your team’s perceptions to identify the gaps and close them, it’s time to Act. When you see behaviors that suggest a deviation from the Clear cultural expectations, don’t ignore them. Address them. This might mean it’s time to re-Measure. It could also be an opportunity for some genuine coaching. In the rare cases it’s egregious or if it’s truly someone who isn’t the right cultural fit, it may be time to support them in finding somewhere that does fit them well.
I’m happy to report I had no problems with the Underground’s gaps. And riding those trains all over London was a joyful adventure I’d gladly do again.
In veterinary practice, though, I had many gaps in my hospitals. And you likely do too. Don't worry, some of that is normal.
Now you’ve got some tools to close them. So Mind Your Gaps and shut that shit down!