The Communication Gap That Lowers Medical Staff Morale

April 23, 2014
Bob Levoy

Physicians may feel they praise staff members, but, in reality many come up short. Here are guidelines for giving effective praise.

In the course of conducting seminars, I've asked more than 2,500 doctors to consider the following statement, "I let my employees know when they're doing a good job," and then rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = never, 5 = always). The average response is 4.4.

So far, so good.

I've also asked audiences of staff members to consider this slightly different statement, "The doctor lets me know when I'm doing a good job," and rate themselves using the same scale. The average response? Only 1.7.

The difference between the amount of positive feedback doctors say they give their employees and the amount employees say theyget creates a major communication gap.

The net result is that many staff members I've interviewed feel frustrated and disillusioned about their work because of this lack of appreciation. Included are those who do above-average work but receive no special recognition or appreciation. Many have said, "I never hear a nice word. The only time I get any feedback about my work is when I make a mistake." And they believe their efforts to do a good job are not even noticed, let alone appreciated.

If your staff members believe their efforts are neither noticed nor appreciated, it will have a negative impact on their morale, productivity, and loyalty.

Unfortunately, people who feel appreciation, often fail to express it. Some physicians and office managers rationalize by claiming how busy they are or that their staff members are just doing what they're paid to do. Others mistakenly assume their employees' need for appreciation can be internally met ("She knows she does a good job," or "My employees know I value them - I don't have to tell them"). Even if that were true, a verbal pat on the back or a written note of thanks for a "job well done" provides the kind of psychological satisfaction for which there is absolutely no substitute.

Hard learned lesson: Good work that goes unnoticed and unappreciated tends to deteriorate, almost without exception.

Action steps: Systematically start to thank your staff members when they do good work or make an extra effort - whether it's one-on-one in the hallway or by voice mail, a written thank-you note, e-mail, text message, in front of others at a staff meeting, or in person at the end of the day. I guarantee it'll boost their spirits and make their day.

Guidelines for giving praise

Praise is not praise when it is idle flattery. A lack of sincerity is transparent and can backfire. The harassed, hyper-busy physician trying to be warm and interested in others is seldom convincing.

Praise the act, not the person. It doubles the impact, reinforces the sincerity, and creates an incentive for doing more of the same. For example, rather than telling a medical assistant, "You're doing a great job," say instead, "Debby, Mrs. Johnson told me how sensitive and caring you were following the bad news she received the other day. Thank you for your thoughtfulness."

Spread the praise. Your most talented or hardworking staff members likely get praised all the time (which might be one reason why they perform so well). However, you should try to include those who get less recognition. It might be that a little appreciation is all they need to flourish.

Validate the importance of your employees. Make sure everyone on your staff feels famous for something. You want them to always have a reason to come to work.

Bob Levoy is the author of seven books and hundreds of articles on human resource and practice management topics. His newest book is "222 Secrets of Hiring, Managing and Retaining Great Employees in Healthcare Practices" published by Jones & Bartlett. He can be reached at blevoy@verizon.net.