Contributed by: Andy Roark, DVM MS
I was talking about motivating veterinary support staff at a conference a few years ago when a man in the audience raised his hand. When I called on him, he said, “I have staff who’ve been around for years. Why do I have to keep thanking and praising them for doing the job I’m paying them for?”
It’s important to note up front that he was not talking about people who are failing to do their job and need to be constantly reminded, cajoled and thanked in order to get their work done. That’s a different matter entirely. This practice owner was talking about people who are generally reliable and proficient at their job.
Maybe I was naive, but I was a bit taken aback by his question at first. The idea of not thanking people for what they do hadn’t occurred to me. Since then, I’ve heard this sentiment again and again. “Why do I have to make a big deal about people doing what they are paid to do?” The more I think about it, the more I hear the question beneath that question: If you’ve entered into a work contract with someone, shouldn’t they be showing up and doing that work without your having to pause what you’re doing to cheer them on?
OK, I get it. But here’s the answer I always give:
Of course, money is a motivator. That’s undeniable. However, almost no one (especially in veterinary medicine) is driven by a single motive. Think about it. If I asked a group of veterinary support staff, “Who here makes their every move based on money?” what percentage do you think would raise their hand? I belief it would be close to zero.
The idea that money must be everyone’s most important motivator seems to be rooted in a fiercely practical view of the professional contract in which workers trade their time and skills for financial compensation. But as sensible as that may sound to the most practical-minded of people, it doesn’t reflect the full picture of human beings. People are more than cogs in a machine.
Money motivates, but so does appreciation, status, love, commitment, morality, purpose, altruism, and on and on. That’s how multi-faceted real people are.
Working for no reason other than a paycheck simply isn’t how most people work — especially in veterinary medicine. Let’s be honest: if people were only looking for a way to trade their time for money, they’d get a whole lot better deal with a lot less poop on their clothes in countless other industries.
Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely once did an experiment where he asked three groups of people to circle pairs of letters on sheets of paper. Each person was paid for the pages he or she handed in, and the payment decreased for each subsequent page (the starting payment was $0.55 for the first page, then $0.50 for the second and so on). The subjects could stop whenever they wanted.
In the first group, people wrote their names at the top of each page and a researcher carefully reviewed their work before adding it to a “completed” pile. In the second group, names were not written on the pages and the researcher simply put the papers in the completed pile without looking at them or acknowledging the person handing them in. In the final group, the researcher collected pages with no names on them and then instead of putting the papers in a pile on the desk, put them directly into a paper shredder. The average price per page at which each person chose to stop was recorded.
If people were only motivated by money, we would expect all three groups to stop at roughly the same price point. That would be when the payment simply doesn’t justify the effort. Of course, that isn’t what happened.
The people who saw their work ignored and put into a paper shredder stopped well before people who saw their work reviewed and set aside ($0.29 for the shredder group versus $0.15 for the reviewed group). Interestingly, the people who were ignored but didn’t see their work dumped into a shredder — those whose work was simply put in a pile — stopped working at roughly the same time as people who watched their work shredded (27.5 cents on average, only 1.5 cents less the shredder group.)
So what does this mean? Obviously, believing that our work means something is important. More surprisingly: failing to acknowledge people’s work is motivationally the same as dumping their work into a shredder right in front of them.
Hey, we all get tired. Thanking people and showing sincere appreciation (especially when we are having a bad day, clients are lining up, patients aren’t responding to treatment, and one of our front desk people didn’t show up for work) can feel burdensome sometimes. However, if you want a motivated team and a happy workplace with a good culture, paying your staff without telling them their contribution means something isn’t enough to get you there.
So thank your people. Tell them that they matter. Convince them that their work has meaning.
Do you have to praise them for work they’re already being paid for? Only if you want to keep them.