How To Make Your Staff Meetings More Effective

Use these 27 tested-tips as a catalyst for greater profitability and practice growth

staff management

How To Make Your Staff Meetings More Effective

Use these 27 tested-tips as a catalyst for greater profitability and practice growth.

BOB LEVOY, O.D., Roslyn, N.Y.

In the toolbox of practice management strategies, staff meetings can be one of the most useful — a conduit for problem-solving, generating ideas, building morale, promoting teamwork, increasing productivity and boosting profitability. Unfortunately, many staff meetings fall short of these practice-building goals.

Reality check: One of the questions I've handed out on index cards at hundreds of seminars is “What do you (honestly) think of staff meetings held in your office?” I've asked staff members (not doctors) to respond (anonymously) on a scale of one to five (1 = useful and productive; 5 = a waste of time). The average response? A disappointing 3.7. That number, if it is representative of all meetings, leaves a lot of room for improvement.

If you or your staff have become discouraged about staff meetings, consider the following tested-tips gleaned from high-performance practices throughout the country.

1 Think of staff meetings as an investment. “Measured in terms of production time and staff salaries, my investment in staff meetings is substantial,” says Dr. Alan Goldstein, a dentist in New York, N.Y. In describing his return on this investment, he says, “We have experienced significant growth each year, and there is virtually no staff turnover. This contributes to a level of calm and [a] high degree of satisfaction in our day-to-day operation. I believe our staff meetings are really what set us apart.”

2 Ask your staff what they consider the best time for a meeting, and compensate them if it's not during regular office hours. Asking staff members to stay late or to come in early is a common staff complaint and not conducive to getting their best thinking. If you select a lunch meeting, make it your treat. You'll see the difference this one change will make in your staff's attitudes.

3 Rotate the leadership of the meeting among everyone in the practice — on a voluntary basis. It's great for team building.

4 Give advance notice of both the date and the agenda of staff meetings rather than catch people off-guard and unprepared. Dr. Jennifer Jellison, a veterinarian in Columbus, Ohio, hangs a tablet in the staff lounge where everyone can suggest meeting topics. On the day of the meeting, the person who listed topic presents it for group discussion. The meeting leader then moves the discussion from one topic to the next and is responsible for starting and stopping the meeting on time.

5 Stick to the agenda. If a real give-and-take discussion is the goal, the meeting leader should make short statements, not speeches. Pass over minor points. Encourage participation. Avoid negativity.

At staff meetings held by veterinarian Jan Wolf, of Kenosha, Wis., participants used “clickers” to signal someone who was being unnecessarily negative, long-winded or otherwise out-of-order. It kept the discussion positive and on-target.

6 Use staff meetings as a forum for discussing issues that affect everyone's work and effectiveness. Brainstorm for ways to improve collections, save time, reduce no-shows, jazz up the dispensary, and exceed patients' expectations.

7 Find time at staff meetings to praise each other for a job well done or to recognize the “little things” that are noticed but never mentioned. A little praise will lift everyone's spirits. It demonstrates that you recognize the importance of a job well-done, including the finer details.

8 If you're the meeting leader, spend more time listening than talking. The following is one of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's rules to fuel the sharing of ideas, information and knowledge throughout the organization: “The folks in the front lines — the ones who actually talk to the customer — are the only ones who really know what's going on out there. You'd better find out what they know,” he says. “This is what total quality is all about. To push responsibility down in your organization and to force good ideas to bubble up within it, you must listen to what your associates are trying to tell you.”

9 Use “encouraging phrases” to keep employees talking when they're explaining an idea. Examples: “Keep talking, that sounds good…” “That would be interesting to try…” “Let's see how we can make that work …” This sparks creativity and will inspire others to jump in with their ideas. Meetings catch fire when this happens.

10 It's worth repeating: Do not allow staff meetings to become gripe sessions. Emotions can run high if participants feel their ideas, personality or on-the-job performance are under attack. If a staff meeting suddenly takes a turn for the worse, explain that complaints about office policies are welcome but that interpersonal conflicts are off limits. “Staff meetings should be for practice problems not people problems,” says Boca Raton, Fla. veterinarian Gerald Snyder.

11 Avoid interruptions. Incoming calls should be handled in the same way they are when everyone is at an out-of-town seminar: Do not permit cell phone use, including for text messaging and e-mails.

12 Don't allow arguments of any kind. Discuss yes — argue, never.

13 Pump the quiet employees, cap gushing ones, summarize and synthesize, and move the meeting along. A sure sign of an over-done discussion: People repeating their own or others' arguments with little or nothing of value added. Cut these discussions short, and move to the next item.

14 Set a time limit, and stick to it. If necessary, schedule another follow-up meeting. It's better to quit on a high note than to have people looking at their watches waiting for the meeting to end.

15 When issues come up that affect employees' working together, make a choice. Your first choice is to solve the problem yourself and announce the solution. Doing so runs the risk of some people rolling their eyes (figuratively, if not literally) and probable failure.

The alternative is to invoke participative management. Introduce the issue at hand. Then, either leave the room, or sit quietly. What you're asking your staff to do is to take responsibility, work together, and find a solution. Listening to the concerns of the participants and asking them to reach a solution by consensus brings them into the process, and now they own not only the problem but also the outcome. This empowers people to believe they have a say in what goes on — and if you've hired well and have self-motivated people, you can trust them to handle it. The result is an environment where you can spend time on doing what you do best instead of managing people.

16 Hold some meetings without the doctor(s). Doctors — and managers in general — often inhibit staff meetings. “Allowing staff to hold their own meetings helps maintain employee satisfaction,” says Dr. Robyn Levy, an allergist in Atlanta, Ga. “They like it when I don't attend. It gives them a sense of autonomy.”

17 Make it a practice, at least initially, to call on people who appear interested and attentive. This helps get the discussion started and is a much better alternative to calling on those who avoid eye contact and indicate little interest in participating.

18 “Don't allow monopolizers and ego-trippers to take over,” says Charles R. McConnell, author of The Effective Health Care Supervisor (Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2006). “Although certain talkative people may have significant contributions to make, their constant presence serves to narrow the discussion and discourage marginally vocal contributors from opening up at all.”

19 Refrain from stating “the last word.” “When employees and colleagues are making suggestions and coming up with great ideas,” says Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and Fast Company columnist, “don't squash their thoughts by always having the last word, by always trying to make the idea or point better. The problem with doing this, is that while the leaders' thoughts “may improve the idea by 5%, they reduce the employee's commitment to executing it by 30% because they've taken away the person's ownership of the idea.”

20 Invite outside speakers, such as allied healthcare professionals, management consultants, sales reps, or perhaps patients themselves to address the group. Their fresh perspective on issues of mutual interest can often lead to more creative and effective solutions.

21 Change the environment. “Every so often, hold your staff meeting outside the office,” suggests Dr. Gary Gerber, president of the The Power Practice, a practice management consulting firm. “Consider a local restaurant, a meeting room at your town library or a weekend retreat at a resort. The unfamiliar surroundings will help generate creative practice-building strategies and solutions.”

22 For a change of pace, show a DVD for in-service training or inspiration. Staff will welcome the change of pace, and it shows them you're willing to think outside-the-box. It also demonstrates that you're willing to offer the additional resources necessary to do the job.

23 Focus on a positive approach. Even in the face of serious challenges, it's beneficial to maintain a positive approach to all workplace situations. For example, consider the world of difference between the questions, “How can we work better as team?” And, “Why is there so much friction and back-stabbing in our office?” The first question challenges staff to settle differences and work together.

The second question can lead to defensive posturing, negative attitudes and employees placing the blame on one another.

24 Play a little. This is the advice of Michael Begeman, manager of the 3M Meeting Network, who explains, “Small quiet toys are preferable. Have an array of squeeze balls, hand exercises, finger toys and Silly Putty,” he says. “A little tactile stimulation helps to elevate people's moods, and professional facilitators use toys like these all the time to boost creativity and attentiveness.”

25 Always conclude meetings with one or more decisions. Don't leave your staff wondering: What did we decide? What's the next step? Make sure you spell out a plan of action along with a schedule of implementation, so your staff knows what you expect of them to accomplish the goal.

26 Schedule staff meetings as often as they're needed, and continue to be productive. Once a month is a common practice for medical practices. Often, practices schedule shorter meetings every two weeks or even weekly.

27 Don't strive for perfection. No matter how well you plan staff meetings, they will not please all of the people all of the time. However, if you spell out an action plan at the conclusion of each meeting (tip 25), staff will engage in productive, profitable activities — results that continue to provide payoffs for your practice long after the meeting has ended. OM

Dr. Levoy's newest book, “222 Secrets of Hiring, Managing and Retaining Great Employees in Healthcare Practices was published by Jones & Bartlett Publishers. E-mail Dr. Levoy at