3 steps to staff empowerment


It is not uncommon to hear a doctor or office manager lament that they are so busy, they can’t get anything done. It is all the daily tasks that keep them from planning, looking ahead, or improving. “It just seems like I am always putting out fires,” is a common way to express this frustration.

It is not uncommon to hear a doctor or office manager lament that they are so busy, they can’t get anything done. It is all the daily tasks that keep them from planning, looking ahead, or improving. “It just seems like I am always putting out fires,” is a common way to express this frustration.

Another complaint is that the staff “doesn’t care,” “won’t accept responsibilities,” or has “bad attitudes.” Low staff morale is consistently at the top of the list of management problems in most industries, including ours.

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The solution to these two complaints is the same: staff empowerment. If the team can adequately take care of the “fires,” then there will be more quality time for you to work on other areas of the practice—and staff morale will dramatically increase if they are entrusted with some real responsibility. (Just trust me on this.)

Which to fix first?

Now the real challenge is next: turning over some of the most important pieces of the practice to a team of people who, at the moment, are not performing well.

This difficult task can be overcome with a strategic staff empowerment plan that has three steps. It is important to note that while this can be done, it is not easy, and the steps are not simple. But by being dedicated to the final outcome and sticking with it, your team will be putting out all of the fires and you can spend your time working on that stack of papers that won’t go away.

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Here are the steps:

1. Talk

2. Listen

3. Be the example

Next: 1. Talk


1. Talk.

It is important that a leader clearly define the direction the team is going. The leader typically has a very good mental image of what she is working toward in the practice. She knows how big she wants the practice to be, how busy, and the type of care she wants to deliver. However, the mental image is only in her brain.

Everyone on the team has their own mental image of the practice, too. Everyone has something they are building within the practice. If the visions of the entire team are not aligned, then stalemate ensues. Only by being very clear of what we are working to accomplish as a team can you begin to empower the individuals on that team. Expectations must be set, guidelines and limitations put in place and metrics defined that will be used to monitor progress.

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2. Listen.

After the vision is shared with the team along with any associated guidelines, it is critical that a system is created so the team can share their perspectives. The culture must exist so that everyone feels safe to tell the truth.

How you do this depends largely on the history of these conversations. Let me give you a quick tip: If nobody in your office disagrees with you, then they don’t feel safe to share their opinions.

If you have a recent history of asking questions, engaging conversation, and inviting feedback, then you are ready to listen and act on the feedback your team gives you. If you have made every decision for the last few years and haven’t heard any good ideas from your team in a while, you have some work to do before you will get any meaningful feedback.

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Surveys are fine, but they will be guarded if it is the only way to communicate. Conversations are better. No matter how you elicit this feedback, start with easy questions that won’t offend anyone. Here’s an example of an easy question: “In your mind, what is the most important aspect of the practice: optical, clinic or administrative?” Let your staff know that there is no right answer to the question so that they feel safe to share.

Next: 3. Be an example


3. Be an example.

To have a team that really cares and is willing to do the extra work, they have to see you doing it, too. A leader who comes to work 15 minutes after the first patient arrives cannot effectively motivate a team to arrive early, ready to work. A leader who complains about a patient can’t expect her team to have respect for every, single patient.

If detailed work is important from your team, they have to see that same level of detail in the work that you do. Lines of communication need to remain open, and revisiting the initial vision of the practice is important. Remember, benchmarks need to be defined to measure success. Routinely going back to that is a nonthreatening way to see how you are doing.

Staff empowerment is critically interdependent with the culture of a practice.

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It is far too common in today’s practices to feel a sense of stress and fear. The stress comes from a number of factors, but mostly it is just the fear of not knowing what is going to happen next. We worry about healthcare reform, insurance companies, and public perception of us as people. Two no-shows in one day makes us panic that we won’t be able to pay the bills. So, we react (often badly) when someone on our team makes a mistake.

These reactions lead to a tendency to cover future mistakes and an overall lack of trust, leading to more fear. You get it.

This culture of stress and fear is natural and, if left alone, will get worse—not better. Steps must be taken to get on the right track and the longer it’s been stressful, the longer this plan is going to take. Either way, the best time to start is now. Empower your staff today to give you an easier tomorrow.

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