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For a better new year, ask staff what’s going wrong and right with the office

To be a leader, a manager has to know the satisfaction level and where staff need and want to change – and also where personal changes are in order.

And now is the time to find out exactly that, says Andrew Sobel, a New York City management and business development consultant.

Addressing issues in January and February “gets people charged up for the year,” he says. It also gives the manager a map for improving in the new year.

The key: questions, not edicts

The job begins with some type of staff surveying, Sobel says. It can be one-on-one, or it can be group discussions. But either way, get staff engaged in talking about their jobs. And the way to do that, he says, “is to turn the statements into questions.”

Instead of a demand, such as, “I need a list of your goals by Monday morning,” phrase it as, “What kind of goals would you like to set for yourself?” Or instead of ,“You need to do X about Y,” make it, “What do you think you need to do about Y?”

In most offices, employees get no more than memos telling what’s happening and what they have to do. But people are far more receptive to an approach of ,“What do you think?” Questions allow them to come to their own conclusions.

General satisfaction

Start by talking about the general job satisfaction and what changes and improvements are needed.

To get staff talking, don’t ask how-satisfied-are-you questions; ask staff to give specific examples of their likes and dislikes.

What was your best day here last year? Your worst day? What was your most fulfilling experience? What’s the best part of working here? the worst part?

Listen carefully to the “worst” responses, Sobel says. The jobs people hate are the jobs they aren’t suited for. Somebody who says collection calling is a dreaded duty is likely not the best person for that job.

“Worst” responses also bring to light things that need overall attention. If a staffer says the worst part of coming to work is having to deal with a rude physician, the office has a large issue to address.

Communication and understanding

Next ask about communication.

• Have there been recent activities or polices in our office that you’d like more information about?

Many an employer takes great pains to communicate things to everybody only to find that people don’t have a good understanding of what’s going on.

Improving the office

Now talk about improvements the office can make.

What can we do to make our practice more successful? What’s getting in the way of your doing your job effectively? What would make your job more interesting and exciting? What information or resources would help you in your job?

And on the positive side, ask about pride.

• What makes you proud to work here?

Pride in the job “is important for motivation,” Sobel says. People who are proud of their jobs do well and don’t want to leave.

Whatever makes people proud to be a part of the office is something to enhance and build on.

And along with that, find out where the office is wasting its time.

•Is there anything you think we should stop doing around here?

The answers can be insightful. A staffer might say, “I have to fill out expense reports twice” or, “I get duplicate requests.” Those are inefficiencies the office can get rid of.

Searching for the right goals

Cover staff’s goals for the next 12 months. But don’t present it as “everybody has to come up with goals,” Sobel says. Don’t assign goals either.

Ask staff what their individual goals already are. “People are more motivated to follow through” with their own ideas than with somebody else’s demands, he explains.

Guide the conversation along with questions such as these.

What’s on your work agenda for the coming year? Are there any particular projects or initiatives you’re interested in? In what areas do you want to improve? How can I help you do that?

Another good question to include here is, “If you had a few nonworking hours each week, how would you spend them?” The answer may be that somebody wants more training in some area.

What do you think about me?

Now get to the manager/staffer relationship. That needs to be covered in the survey, Sobel says, because nobody wants to confront the boss. But bringing the subject up via questions allows staff to mention concerns without being confrontational.

• How can I be of greatest help to you as your manager? Are there any issues you’ve been grappling with that you’d like for me to address? Is there anything I can do personally to make your job easier?

To be motivated and do high quality work, staff “have to know the manager cares for them and is supporting them,” Sobel says.

Last year’s failures

The failings and shortfalls of the past year also need to be on the agenda. But again, this is no time for an edict such as, “We cannot tolerate that.”

• What happened to cause this? What can you do to keep it from happening in the future? How can we help you with that?

And when an individual staffer or staff as a group offer suggestions that aren’t adequate, follow with, “I think that’s a good idea. And here is something else you might want to consider.”

Again, Sobel says, people want to solve their own problems “rather than be told what to do.”

Plus a little on the personal side

The last area is one few managers ever address – staff’s personal interests unrelated to work.

Knowing staff individually and personally builds loyalty, Sobel says. It shows the manager looks at them as people, not just workers. Don’t get overly personal, but do ask things such as these.

Tell me about your favorites – movies, restaurants, books, ways to relax. Tell me about something you’ve always wanted to do but never have – a sport, hobby, trip, challenge. When you’re not in the office, how do you like to spend your time?

Besides illustrating personal interest and concern, that gives the manager information about the types of recognition and rewards that motivate individual staffers. If it turns out that somebody likes baseball, for example, an effective reward for outstanding work would be tickets to a game.

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