5 low-cost ways to boost employee competence and confidence

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

One memory sticks out from the day I started my first "real" after-school job. It was a warning from my mom, just as I was leaving the car, to expect a moment when I felt that I'd have to quit immediately. No matter what triggered it, she said, the impulse to run for the door would be almost overwhelming. The feeling would pass, she reassured, if I managed to persevere. But it would be back--without warning--at some moment during every job I would hold for the rest of my life.

And I'll be darned, Mom was right.

When I retell the story to my own children, I'll add this: At the root of each of those terrifying, fight-or-flight moments was the feeling that I simply wasn't competent to do what was being asked--whether the task was as menial as opening a box when no sharp objects presented themselves or having to jab another human being with a decidedly sharp syringe--it was a lack of confidence that caused the panic.

When medical practice employees quit, or, more subtly, continually avoid doing something in their job descriptions, they might not admit to feeling overwhelmed or unsure of what to do. But while it's been long advised that a major key to reducing staff turnover is providing adequate training, strained budgets can make it difficult to ensure education is adequate.

Fortunately, however, there are ways to weave meaningful training into your practice's work flow without adding much cost. Consider the following:

  • Ask all employees to, perhaps anonymously, share one thing they struggled to figure out during their first week on the job. It could be unjamming the photo copier, working the switchboard or handling an angry patient. Keep track of these items over time, look for patterns and pay special attention to helping new employees overcome these common pitfalls.
  • Assign mentors. Mentorship can be an invaluable asset for physicians, and there's no reason it can't work for employees too. But sending a new hire out to lunch with a seasoned "buddy" on his or her first day isn't going to cut it. Pair up individuals you think will complement each other and give them ideas for activities to do together on a regular basis. Sometime during the first week, for example, the mentor could give the trainee a tour of all of the office supplies and equipment they'll be using, giving them a heads up as to any quirks. Perhaps a month later, they could practice role-playing ways to handle sticky situations with patients or even coworkers. Incentivize employees to serve as mentors by giving them first pick of summer vacation days, entering all mentors into a raffle to win a prize or offering some other perk that won't cost much or disrupt the harmony of the practice.
  • Hire interns. By hiring a low-cost of free intern, you not only get work done at a reduced rate but potentially create a future employee who knows your practice inside and out. So, when working with interns, make sure you encourage them to stretch and learn as much as possible from their experience. By challenging them, without putting on too much pressure, these individuals can develop a comfort level and loyalty to your office, making them perfect full-timers down the line.
  • Swap jobs. Developing a schedule for employees from different nonclinical departments to swap jobs for a day (or even a few hours) serves a variety of purposes. First, it helps cross-train employees, giving you a contingency plan for days you might be understaffed. Next, it allows employees to have a better appreciation for what their coworkers do, as well as a better understanding of how their own work makes or breaks the other's success, such as with front-office employees taking accurate demographic information for the back office. Finally, moving employees around occasionally allows them to connect with other employees. Whether employees learn new things from each other incidentally or simply builds each other's network of support, the exercise stands to benefit the practice in surprising ways.
  • Praise problem-solving. While most practice administrators and managers I've talked to recommend an open-door policy in which employees feel comfortable asking questions, they also want to hold people accountable to figure some things out themselves. You can create a more collaborative, free-thinking culture at your practice by simply asking patients for feedback on problems or decisions. Encourage employees to present ideas for how things could be done better, more quickly or with less confusion, and be open to testing whether they work. And when you notice an employee doing a good job of addressing a problem--or helping a coworker overcome one--be sure to commend that person publicly.

In many ways, building employee confidence comes down to building their trust--among coworkers, with managers and in themselves. The better employees feel about their own skill sets and the resources around them, the less likely they are to flee from challenges. - Deb @PracticeMgt