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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The Veterinary "2-Step": Motivational Corrective Conversation

During presentations and in the consulting I do as a veterinary Workplace Wellbeing Strategist, I’m asked lots of great questions. It turns out, the vast majority of veterinary practitioners, including those in leadership positions, are genuinely interested in enhancing the wellbeing of all veterinary professionals. So, they take a real interest in learning tools for accomplishing just that.

Some common themes tend to appear in their questions. One theme sounds something like this:

“Josh, how do I actually motivate my team?”

It’s one of my favorite questions.

Here’s the standard first response, and keep in mind, it’s intentionally nebulous and a bit frustrating.

“If you’re looking for a magical motivation pill, I’ve got some bad news for you. It doesn’t exist.”

That’s because motivation is contextual, subjective, and complex. Especially in the workplace.

“Don’t worry, “ I tell them, “I do have some advice that should help.” And I do.

I encourage them to find opportunities to coach their team with curiosity and empowerment.

According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a leading theory on human motivation, we tend to be motivated by some combination of extrinsic (or external) and intrinsic (or internal) factors.

In and of themselves, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation may be good or bad. That is, there are situations in which a cash reward is a beneficial motivator. And, there are situations in which personal satisfaction may be all the motivation one needs.

But here’s what I think. When veterinary leaders ask me, “how do I motivate my team?,” they are really asking, “how do I keep my team motivated in a way that gets them to give their best?”

And that’s a whole new ball of wax.

When it comes to workplace motivation, this is one place cash tends to NOT be king. To get consistent, effective motivation from members of a team – the kind of motivation that results in higher team performance and business outcomes - leaders must lean in to the intrinsic side of the SDT spectrum.

To get consistent, effective motivation from members of a team – the kind of motivation that results in higher team performance and business outcomes - leaders must lean in to the intrinsic side of the Self-Determination Theory spectrum.

Disclaimer – I am by no means suggesting things like pay, benefits, perks, etc. are not important. They absolutely are. All of us are motivated by such external rewards and we should always seek to maximize them in accordance with fair and equitable practice. The point I’m making in this article is that external rewards have a lower motivation ceiling than internal rewards. So salary and benefits and ping pong tables will only get us so far up the motivation ladder. Furthermore, a reliance solely (or primarily) on external rewards can actually inhibit the sense of intrinsic motivation, reducing workplace performance.

So the question is, how do leaders cultivate intrinsic motivation in their team?

All you “fixers” out there are gonna love this. <Sarcasm>

Stop fixing (directing) your employees. Rather, coach them to do it themselves.

I’ll explain what I mean.

Here’s a typical veterinary hospital situation – Susie CSR is alone at the desk when the phone rings. She diligently answers right away and warmly welcomes the person on the other line, just as Mr. Smith walks in with Fluffy for the next appointment. Susie calmly places the phone on hold, having confirmed it is not an emergency, and tends to Mr. Smith. Half way through checking Fluffy in the other line rings. Susie picks up, confirms no emergency, and places this person on hold. As she’s assisting Mr. Smith in weighing Fluffy she hears the beeping of two lines on hold. Eager to care for everyone, she shuffles Mr. Smith into Exam Room 1 and returns to the phones. Line 1 is an easy 10 second question but Line 2 actually has a sick cat who has had diarrhea for 3 days. Susie begins scouring the schedule for an open sick-pet slot when another line begins ringing and a client walks in to pick up a refill. Flustered a bit, Susie quickly schedules the diarrhea cat for an afternoon appointment and moves on to the next line.

Tammy Technician scans the schedule over her lunch break to discover Susie has scheduled the sick cat in a wellness block, meaning all the afternoon appointments are now sick animals. Perturbed at knowing she’ll be working late that day she barges into Mandy Manager’s office and blurts out what happened, expecting Mandy to fix it. Sound familiar?

Mandy walks up front to find Susie.

From a Self-Determination Theory perspective Mandy has two options for how she addresses her concern with Susie:

  1. Tell her what she did wrong, direct her how to handle it, and explain what to do next time (Extrinsic Motivation)

  2. Explain what she found and empower Susie to handle it (Intrinsic Motivation)

I see (and have done!) #1 plenty of times. It looks like this:

“Susie, you scheduled that sick cat in a wellness slot. It’s going to mess up the whole afternoon for the techs and doctors. Please call that owner and reschedule it since it obviously isn’t a big deal….I mean, the cat has had this issue for 3 days….and next time do NOT schedule sick pets in wellness slots.”

Mandy might have a point or two in there. And she may very well have “policy and procedure” on her side.

But this is a limiting approach.

Susie is not likely to be motivated to do better next time. Rather, she is now motivated to avoid screwing up.

Over time this form of external motivation is limiting in that it both depletes the employee and inspires minimal accomplishment.

What might option #2 sound like? How about this:

  • Mandy Manager: “Susie, I noticed you scheduled a sick cat in a wellness slot this afternoon. Can you help me understand what happened?”

  • Susie CSR: “Oh gosh, Mandy. I’m sorry….I didn’t even realize that! Here’s what happened….(explains whole scenario).”

  • Mandy: “Well I can certainly understand how you got flustered. That said, with an afternoon of all sick pets it’s going to be a real challenge for the techs and docs. What, if anything, do you think we could do to help alleviate the schedule issue?”

  • Susie: “Well, the owner wasn’t super concerned about the cat and it is eating and drinking and not vomiting. Maybe I could call them back and reschedule for tomorrow?”

  • Mandy: “That sounds great, Susie. Why don’t you do that! Oh, and one more thing….what will you do next time a situation like this comes up?”

Mandy employed two key practices in her “corrective conversation” with Susie:

  1. Curiosity: Mandy approached the conversation with a genuine desire to understand how the mistake was made in the first place. So, she pointed out the mistake, objectively and judgement free, and then employed a question from a point of curiosity – “Help me understand….”

  2. Empowerment: Intrinsic motivation, in large part, gets it potency from autonomy. That is, we tend to be more driven by (and accountable to) decisions we make on our own. Mandy put this psychological super power to use at two points (and again, using questions, not directives). First, when she asked Susie for ideas on how to fix things, and second, when she asked Susie to consider how she could prevent this mistake from happening again.

This style of conversation certainly takes longer (although I’d say it barely takes longer). And it’s not the natural state for a manager in “putting out fires” mode. I get it, I’ve been there.

That said, if you really want a consistently highly motivated team, one that crashes through the low ceiling of external motivational tactics and begins to approach the heights of internal motivation, this is the kind of approach you need to be taking.

Approach coaching conversations with curiosity and seek to empower the person you are coaching. Over time you’ll help them develop a sense of autonomy.

That’s where things like job satisfaction, enjoyment, and engagement live.

And I think that’s a place we all want to help our fellow veterinary professionals find.

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