Forget the year-end bonuses. When it comes to recognizing your staff for a job well done, it's often the rewards that cost the least that yield the biggest return. Indeed, while many practices utilize profit-based incentives, Courtney Price, president of VentureQuest, a management consulting firm in Denver, says a strategy that promotes ingenuity, teamwork, and a better patient experience has a far greater impact on corporate culture. "When you reward and recognize, it reinforces positive behavior," says Price. "As morale goes up, your employees are more willing to share new ideas." It's not that money doesn't matter. To be sure, your compensation must be competitive — lest your best and brightest bail for greener pastures. But as the industry moves to pay-for-performance reimbursement models, it's more important than ever to praise your troops for putting patients first, says Susan Murphy, a business consultant in Rancho Mirage, Calif., who wrote "Building and Rewarding Your Team."
Much is at stake. Positive reinforcement has been linked repeatedly to lower turnover, improved patient outcomes, and increased productivity in the healthcare setting. But the reverse is true as well. Managers who fail to give their staff the kudos they deserve create a toxic environment that can deal a devastating blow to your practice. They also become a distraction, taking the focus of your team away from the patients. "I often say that people join an organization and leave a manager," says Murphy. "A negative culture can be fatal. It's the carbon monoxide effect. You can't see it or smell it, but it's deadly."
Effective employee recognition programs begin with a clear objective, says Murphy. Practices should determine first what they hope to achieve — shorter wait times, increased patient safety, better patient outcomes, fewer billing errors — so they can tailor their rewards to promote their agenda. Such goals should also pass the "SMART" test, says Murphy, meaning they must be: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound.
Next, leadership should attempt to quantify where they stand at present with their stated goals. Patient and employee surveys, which can be done informally and in-house, take the guesswork out of the equation, adds Price, who co-wrote "Acknowledge! Appreciate! Applaud! 172 Ways to Reward Staff at Little or No Cost." "Some group practices can accurately describe what their culture is, but you want to verify it with others because if you are in management you may feel the culture is X, while your employees may think it's Y," says Price. The data you collect becomes a yardstick for measuring progress.
Lastly, identify opportunities for process improvement, says Murphy. Examples include better patient flow, faster check-in, same-day call backs, and scheduling that ensures the bulk of your workers are in their seats during the busiest parts of the day. With that in hand, you can then address the various ways that each person in your practice can be a catalyst for positive change.
Share your vision
Now it's time to communicate with your staff. Spell out the types of behavior you seek, and how it benefits both the individual and your practice, says Barbara Hotko, a workplace coach with Studer Group healthcare consulting in Gulf Breeze, Fla. If you want your staff to treat each other with courtesy and respect, offer examples. Value a positive attitude? Explain how that contributes to morale and the patient experience. If patients wait 15 minutes past their appointment time, instruct your staff to apologize, explain the reason for the delay, and ask if there's anything they can do to make their wait more comfortable. Or, you may wish for those who greet your patients to "manage up." To that end, Hotko suggests trading in the cursory "hello" for something more like this: "Hi Sally. My name is Karen. I've been a registered nurse for 20 years and I'll be taking excellent care of you today."
Managers should model such behavior themselves so it becomes "hardwired" into your practice culture, adds Hotko. And they should never miss an opportunity to reward staff members who follow suit. "When positive behavior gets noticed by leadership, you have a greater chance that your staff will do it more often," she says. "The exciting thing is that this can improve patient outcomes." Hotko notes that patients who leave your office unhappy are less likely to make follow-up appointments that help them manage their health.