Testing the Waters: Take the Temperature of Your Practice with a Team Survey

When managing a veterinary business, what you don’t know can hurt you. This applies to treating a patient, providing great client services, and having a high-performing team. The problem is that we are sometimes afraid to find out what we don’t know because it means we may have to change things, and change can be difficult. Stop being afraid and take steps to create a team survey that provides feedback you can act on.

Conducting regular surveys of the team actually increases employee engagement and is a great way to get honest, actionable feedback.

by Louise S. Dunn

When managing a veterinary business, what you don’t know can hurt you. This applies to treating a patient, providing great client services, and having a high-performance team. The problem is that we are sometimes afraid to find out what we don’t know because it means we may have to change things, and change can be difficult. Stop being afraid and take steps to create a team survey that provides feedback you can act on.

The old proverb “Curiosity killed the cat” often serves as a warning about the dangers of unnecessary investigation—and so it goes with many business owners and managers not wanting to ask too many questions of their team. Dig too deep, and unpleasant truths come to light. Ask for input, and you risk telling the team you aren’t going to do anything with their information. However, curiosity will not kill your veterinary business—disinterest will. In other words, if something is awry, it’s better to find out about it so the issue can be addressed.

Think about those in the veterinary profession—we are curious. Curious about disease processes, treatment options, and diagnostic tools. We thirst for knowledge and innovative ways to diagnose and treat. We are a curious bunch, and our curiosity enables us to improve the quality of life of the patients we care for. So why are we so afraid of being curious about what the team thinks and what type of work culture we have?

Conducting regular surveys of the team actually increases employee engagement and is a great way to get honest, actionable feedback. Surveys are also very telling. If someone does not fill out the survey, they are 2.6 times more likely to leave in the next six months. Asking for input can also influence team members to change behavior because questions will prompt reflection. Finally, asking team members for their opinion and input makes them feel valued.

First, Answer “Why”

Before writing that first question or creating a Survey Monkey account, it is imperative that the management team ask “why,” specifically, “Why are we conducting a survey?” The Society for Human Resource Management offers additional advice and questions:

  • Why bother doing a survey—what do we want/need to know?
  • Who will create the questions—why does it matter if we do it or if we copy from some website?
  • Will all the results be communicated—why should we share with the rest of the team?
  • Who will implement changes driven by survey results—why should we worry about this now?
  • Do we repeat/change questions from previous surveys?

Conducting a survey requires preliminary work and honest discussion among the management team, especially about being sincere about management’s desire to hear suggestions for improvement. Not sharing the results with the rest of the team will be detrimental to team engagement. Similarly, not implementing any changes in light of survey results will have a chilling effect on team performance and involvement in any future surveys. Ignoring survey results is just as dangerous to business success as not being curious at all about ways to improve. Once the management team has honestly dealt with the initial question of “Why conduct a survey?” it is time to get started.

Do not ask questions if you are not prepared to address the responses or inform the team about them.

Next, Figure Out the What and How

The next step is to determine what questions to ask. Do not ask questions if you are not prepared to address the responses or inform the team about them. Decide who will write the questions, and use resources such as Survey Monkey and the Society for Human Resource Management for ideas. When choosing the best question to determine the “temperature” of the team, go back to the discussion on why the survey is being done. If the information on working conditions is important, then consider asking team members whether they agree with statements such as, “We have too many rules to follow,” or “I can respond promptly to client requests despite a busy workload.” Want to ask about compensation and benefits? Do not ask about both in one question; instead, ask the team whether they agree with these two statements: “I am paid fairly for the work I do,” and “I feel that the benefits package I get is fair and competitive.” Other areas of focus are cooperation, personal opportunities, job satisfaction, communication, supervision/management, morale, recognition, teamwork, and staffing. Are you curious yet to know how your team will respond?

In addition to formulating the questions to ask, deciding how you want your team to give their responses is just as important. While it may sound great just to place a comment box and let the team type whatever they want, the volume of responses collected makes it difficult to group and analyze the data. Instead of having every prompt be open-ended, use just a few, such as, “Name two things we can do to improve patient care.” For most types of questions, survey experts recommend using a numerical scale (e.g., 1 means “strongly disagree” and 5 means “strongly agree”). This type of setup makes it easy to do trending analysis on future surveys.
As for the tool to use for the survey, a Google search will quickly give you options to choose from. The decision on which employee survey tool to use is up to you and will be based on pricing options, the amount of time it takes to learn how to use the software, mobile app availability, and whether you will use other features in the software—just to name a few factors. Once you have your tool and your questions, it is time to get team responses.

It is crucial to keep the survey confidential. Do not ask for age, gender, or job title, and be sure to instruct the team to avoid any identifying information when they type a response in the comment sections of the survey. Establish a time frame for responding. It is best to inform the team that they only have a few days to respond to the survey—Survey Monkey reports a 41% response rate on the first day after email invitations are sent, with an 80% response after seven days. To encourage the laggards, send another email and consider extending the due date only if extenuating circumstances have prevented the team from responding.

Although it may be tempting to start looking at the incoming responses, it is best to hold off for a few days to allow the team the comfort of not being rushed and not hearing about responses already seen. After all, you do not want to influence responses—and what can be more chilling than hearing management complaining about early responses or asking individuals whether they have responded yet? Give it time, send out a second email to encourage participation, and then close the survey on the date you established at the onset.

It is important to designate who will be responsible for communicating results and implementing changes.

Now What?

The results are in, and graphs and comments are all at your fingertips. It is a common problem: We ask for data, then get paralyzed by all the information (think about all those practice management reports and benchmark publications). It is important to designate who will be responsible for communicating results and implementing changes.

Hold a team meeting during which management shows the graphs of results. Do not let the team get into speculating about who that lone responder is who was at the far end of the reply scale. Instead, discuss how the positives are helping the team and the business and what the business intends to do with identified problem areas.

For the responses, show that the team is in a good or favorable position and celebrate the positive. Use it to your advantage and practice some appreciative inquiry to apply what’s working well to areas that need to kick it up a notch. For the areas that have an issue—those questions for which there was negative feedback—put together a management team to respond. Questions that seem to have received indifferent responses may not have been worded well, or they may have included too many topics in the query. These questions may need to be changed and sent out again to drill down into the matter.

For example, if “I am satisfied with my pay and benefits” recorded many replies in the middle of the road (i.e., neither agree nor disagree), this question needs to be changed and perhaps made more specific by being separated into two questions, one about pay and one about benefits. You could list each benefit and have the team rate each, with 1 being “not valuable” and 5 being “very valuable.” If another statement, “We have too many rules to follow,” gets several comments and “agree” and “strongly agree” replies, this signals a need to look for areas of bureaucratic creep—too many hoops to jump through, too many approvals needed, or too many screens to click through. Sometimes, the standard operating procedures have become cumbersome and bloated with too many steps.

On the flip side, if the team agrees with the statement “There are enough rewards and recognition given at this practice for doing good work,” it’s time to celebrate! You may also use this when the practice is in the market for a new hire. Promoting what the team loves about working at the practice can be useful and gives prospective employees some insight into the culture of the practice.

There are times when management and leadership think there is an issue but find that the team doesn’t agree. Other times, management is shocked to learn that team performance or opinion is not aligned with the strategic plan. No matter what is discovered from the survey, management needs to take action, inform the team, implement change, and celebrate success.

Take the temperature of the practice, get curious, and use the power of feedback to create a culture that delivers excellent patient care and client service, all while engaging the team.

AAHA’s Healthy Workplace Initiative

This initiative provides veterinary practices with tools and resources to foster individual wellbeing and optimal, healthy cultures.

One component of this initiative is the AAHA Culture Connection, an employee-engagement program designed to help practices achieve the organizational culture they’ve always wanted. This two-part program includes a scientifically based survey to identify key pain points within a practice’s culture. Once the survey is taken, the program offers ongoing support, tools, and resources through an exclusive online community to help tackle a practice’s most pressing issues.

Supported by a generous educational grant from Merck Animal Health, AAHA is currently conducting a unique study of select practices using AAHA Culture Connection and will publish the results in an upcoming issue of Trends. Visit aaha.org/culture to learn more about the Healthy Workplace Initiative and the AAHA Culture Connection.

Louise Dunn is owner of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting. Find her online at snowgoosevet.com.
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