Working in harmony

Any musician will tell you that for the group to sound great, the individuals must perform well—and understand how to complement one another. The same holds true in veterinary practice. Are you playing your part?
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Oct 01, 1998


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The key to a great work team is co-workers who show respect for each other, talk through problems when they arise, and work together to achieve common goals. But even the most finely tuned teams hit a flat note on occasion and encounter inefficiency, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and conflict. No matter the state of your team, you can bring more harmony to your working relationships. Here's how:

Know your part If you're not sure where your job fits into the big picture at your practice, find out. Set aside some time at a staff meeting to review the practice's mission statement, and talk about how daily tasks in the hospital fulfill that mission.


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Your job description also can give you insight into how the doctor or manager sees your role. If you don't have a specific job description, consider writing one yourself and then discussing it with your supervisor. Just writing down your responsibilities and work goals can help you focus on what you really need to accomplish from day to day.

Part of understanding your role in the hospital is understanding yourself. For example, think about how you like to work and what you expect from the people you work with. Then communicate that information to your team by setting limits, when necessary.

Setting limits is really just defining and protecting your comfort boundaries. In other words, you set limits to keep others from invading your physical and psychological space and making you feel uncomfortable. In extreme cases, not setting limits can leave you feeling exploited and angry—sexual harassment is one dramatic example. When setting limits, remember that you need to be clear about defining your boundaries, be consistent in your requests, and follow through when people don't respect your limits.

Think about clarity this way: Practice policies are a type of limit. However, when a specific situation arises, you may realize you don't know exactly what the policies mean. For example, suppose you're responsible for keeping the surgical suite clean. What does "clean" mean? One person might interpret the job to mean culturing the surgery table at regular intervals. Another might think that if there's no visible dirt, it's clean.

Whether you're setting a practice policy or a limit on sharing your office supplies, stick to it. All the clear explanations in the world won't help if you muddy the message by responding inconsistently when people step over the line.

Remember, inconsistency creates variable reinforcement, which is the most effective way to establish an unwanted behavior. Imagine a client whose dog begs for a treat. One day it takes 20 minutes for her to give in, the next day it takes 10 minutes, and the next day it takes 30 minutes. Before long, the dog will beg for hours, because he never knows when it will pay off. And people can be even more persistent than pets, so make sure you follow through by taking action if someone at work violates your boundaries.

What's an example of follow-through? Say one of your team members regularly uses offensive language. Your first steps are to explain to your co-worker that certain words and topics are offensive to you and to ask that she not use such language in your presence. If she persists, tell her that you won't hesitate to talk to the practice manager about the problem if it continues. If the language does continue, follow through by speaking with the manager.

Keep in mind, it's better not to set a limit than to set one you won't enforce. In other words, if push comes to shove, you need to say no, mean it, and act on it.

Support other players By setting limits, you've started identifying ways you want other team members to support you. You also need to help other people in the practice achieve their potential.