Want a sure way to make your staff feel valued while finding out what needs improvement? Just ask ’em. Here’s how to seek staff input.
At times, the comments are focused on bonus structures or salaries. Other employees speak candidly about their personal lives - a family illness or challenges with childcare. And at least once every quarter, a straight-talking staff member comes to the table with advice on how management could do its job better.
“Anything is fair game to bring up,” says Kimberly Anderson, chief administrative officer for the orthopedics department at UC Davis Health System in Sacramento, Calif., who hosts the “what’s on your mind” sessions four times a year with each of the 16 employees on her team. “It’s a safe haven. The sessions are time consuming, but the content is valuable as it gives you a real pulse of the organization and establishes a relationship of trust and loyalty.”
Separate from her monthly staff meetings and annual reviews, the one-on-one sessions also provide an opportunity for Anderson to offer some feedback of her own. “It’s a lot of active listening and I try not to use it as a time to address performance, but I do provide feedback on what they share,” she says. “If they’re having a problem with another staff member, for example, I use those times to help them think about the situation from a different perspective or to help them understand the consequences of their actions. I don’t think there is such a thing as too much feedback.”
It’s that kind of constructive dialogue that puts the most successful practices in a class by themselves, says human resources consultant Paul Schaber, with The Management Trust in Seattle, who works primarily with medical practices. “The more you can talk with your people and find out about them, the better,” he says. “Feedback is an important tool, especially in this economy.”
Why? Practices that actively seek input from their staff send an important message to their team: We value your opinion. “There are a lot of employers out there not treating their workers as well as they should right now because they have the opportunity to freeze wages and deal with it later. But employees will remember that when the job market comes back,” says Schaber. Practices that have been forced to put pay raises on hold can boost morale by empowering their staff to speak up and suggest new ways to streamline operations.
Bill Hughes, administrator of Women’s Health Specialists, a 12-provider group in Jensen Beach, Fla., agrees. “I always try to remember that these people on my team do this day in and day out, so they know better than I what works and what doesn’t,” he says, noting his favorite way of gathering input is to simply walk around each department and listen to what his staff is saying. “I try to empower them to make changes that are more innovative, to do things more efficiently, because reimbursements aren’t getting larger. The only way to build in profit is to make ourselves more efficient. I ask for input from team leaders before I make any changes.”
Delivery is key
As administrator, of course, you’re often the one who is giving feedback to your staff. And the manner in which you provide it is key. According to Hughes, it’s all in the delivery. “I trumpet success and correct in private,” he says. “Those employees that have given valid input that resulted in significant change, I always make it a point to congratulate them in public to let other employees know they can make a difference. If there is any constructive criticism that needs to be done, it’s done privately. If something comes up that they could have done differently we discuss it without me coming at them with an ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ attitude.”
Rather than simply telling someone what to do, adds Anderson, try framing your comments in a way that can be used as an educational opportunity. “My managerial philosophy is that feedback should be focused on coaching, teaching, and helping them grow, rather than expecting your employees to morph into something else,” she says.
In some cases, in fact, effective leadership means holding back. “None of us want to be slaves who are told exactly what to do and when to do it,” says Schaber. “The best organizations allow their employees some freedom and room for individuality.” That means letting your employees do their job, without micromanaging, hovering, or interjecting your opinion at every turn. “The journey’s not as important as the destination,” says Schaber. “As the manager, you have to watch to be sure they get to the destination, but people constantly show me that there are other ways to do things. If it’s more efficient or effective, all the better.”
His advice? Be open and honest with your staff at all times, sharing as much as you can as soon as you can - particularly as it affects salaries, layoffs, or mergers. Be sure, too, to correct small problems, such as personnel conflicts, performance problems, or tardiness, without hesitation. “It’s deceptively simple to manage people,” says Schaber. “Everyone always tries to make things more complicated. Just tell them the truth. Tell them what’s on your mind. They might not like what they hear, but they’ll respect you greatly for telling them.”
Lastly, keep in mind that if you ask for feedback from your staff, you’d best be prepared to act on it. “If you conduct surveys or seek out employee feedback, you have to be ready to deal with it if someone says you’re doing lousy,” says Schaber. “Be prepared to fix it. It’s better to do that proactively now than allow it to fester, which can destroy an organization.”
Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.