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Motivate Medical Practice Staff by Being Positive


Studies show that positive reinforcement is far more powerful than negative directives. Here are seven positive ways to engage your staff.

Are you looking for easy-to-implement strategies to build medical-practice staff engagement and promote performance? The key to getting the most from your staff is to emphasize what they are doing well. So often, we tend to notice what people are doing wrong. Humans have what's known as a "negativity bias," because our brains are continually scanning the environment for potential threats. After all, the brain's number one job is to keep us safe and avoid danger. Therefore, we see the negative aspects of behaviors and situations much more easily than the positive ones. We actually need to train ourselves to attend more to the positive.

Ironically, negative events, especially those that are emotionally charged, have a much stronger and longer-lasting impact on us than do positive events. What do you think an employee will remember about you at the end of the day: Giving him a compliment? Or, getting upset because he made a mistake? When people get emotionally triggered, their ability to think well, to focus, to remember, and to see other people's perspectives significantly declines. So even when you think you are providing "constructive criticism," more often than not, it is far from constructive. This is not to suggest that we should never give people corrective feedback. But you need to be aware of how your messages will be received.

Neuroscience has taught us that it takes at least five positives to begin to "neutralize" one negative. Therefore, you need to have far more positive interactions with your staff than negative ones. As a leader in your practice, spend more time catching staff being good than catching them being bad or wrong. Furthermore, when the brain receives positive feedback for an action it is rewarding, and it serves as a signal to do more of that behavior. It is rewarding because the brain actually gets a little hit of dopamine - and research has found that dopamine serves to drive motivation. Who doesn't want motivated employees? Therefore, not only is it important to provide positive feedback (acknowledgement and appreciation), it is also important to be very specific about the behaviors you are addressing.

Telling an employee "good job" is nice, but it is not very specific and can be quickly dismissed, forgotten, or negated by the person. The more specific you can be, the more the positive acknowledgement will "stick" and be remembered. Here is an easy-to-implement guide to providing effective affirming feedback:

1. Look for positive outcomes. Be on the lookout for actions and behaviors employees engage in that had a positive impact on you, your patients, other staff members, and/or the practice.

2. Communicate appreciation. Be intentional about taking the time to communicate that you noticed. Make sure your feedback is genuine (people see right through false flattery or platitudes).

3. Give on the spot kudos. Provide timely feedback - the closer to the event, the more meaning it has.

4. Be specific, give details. Identify what your staff member did that resulted in a positive impact. Describe the behavior that you want to see more of (remember, the brain will hear the message as a signal to do more of that behavior).

Here's an example of specific, positive feedback:

I really appreciated that you called our afternoon patients to let them know I was running late in surgery. It made my interactions with those patients much more pleasant and several of them told me they appreciated getting the call.

5. Be generous with positive observations. Give at least five positives for every corrective or negative communication.

6. Express appreciation. Let the employee know how her actions had a positive impact.

7. Set up incremental goals. You can also set employees up for success (and bursts of dopamine) by helping them set incremental goals. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to be given a large task (for example, reorganizing supplies in patient rooms). But if you break it down into manageable tasks with specific outcomes (take an inventory of the supplies, determine which supplies are used the most, find appropriate containers to store supplies, label all supply sources, etc.), you create more opportunities for employee success, and thus, more opportunities for positive acknowledgement.

Follow these easy steps and you will discover that your staff is more motivated, engaged, and happy.

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