“Values” refers to the underlying principles, beliefs and priorities that guide our decisions and behaviour (Figure 1). Having a set of agreed values in a veterinary practice team helps create a shared understanding of how to work together and sets the tone as to how to treat patients, clients and one another while still meeting the needs of the business.
In the often fast-paced, emotionally charged and complex veterinary practice environment, not everything can be mapped out, carefully controlled and delivered according to predetermined standard operating procedures (SOPs). However, if we have a set of values integrated into the way we operate, we can at least be confident that everyone will act appropriately in any given situation. This is because they act as a compass, guiding the decisions and behaviours of the team.
If we have a set of values integrated into the way we operate, we can at least be confident that everyone will act appropriately in any given situation
There is a growing and significant body of evidence on the impact of values on businesses in areas such as employee engagement, attraction and retention, client trust and loyalty, patient care, innovation and financial growth. However, as you might expect, it’s not just a matter of coming up with a few pretty words – values must be meaningful, authentic, explicit and consciously embedded into practice life to realise their potential benefits.
So, how can you harness the power of values in your practice?
Establishing practice values
First, I should say that it’s essential to involve the whole team in creating your values. This ensures you consider all perspectives and fosters ownership and accountability in the process outlined below (adapted from Friedman, 2018).
Stage 1 – prepare and reflect
Schedule a two- to three-hour team meeting and ask people to prepare by providing them in advance with some background information on what values are. Then, ask them to consider these principal questions:
- What do you value?
- What values have contributed to our success so far?
- What differentiates our team from other teams?
- What values should govern the way we interact with our clients, patients and each other and the business’s financial health?
Stage 2 – discuss, choose and develop
This stage is the two- to three-hour meeting itself and involves three individual sections.
Part 1 – gather together and organise the ideas
This stage should take around 40 to 60 minutes and involves collating everyone’s answers to the questions and organising them for future discussions.
- Based on their reflections, ask every team member to share their suggested values: for instance, by writing them down on post-it notes and sticking them on a whiteboard
- Together, look for common themes and cluster similar ones together. For example, “honesty”, “integrity”, “doing the right thing” and “ethics” can be grouped together and the exact wording agreed on later
- Ask each team member to independently write down the top 10 values they believe resonate most with the practice’s vision and mission and rank them in order of importance
Part 2 – identify a shortlist
For the next 40 to 60 minutes of the meeting, you need to decide on the most highly valued aspects across the team.
- Ask team members to assign points to their chosen values, for example a score of 10 points for the most important value on someone’s list down to 1 point for the 10th one
- Compare everyone’s lists and add up the total points for each one
- Discuss the scores and the thinking behind them, exploring areas of agreement and disagreement and briefly talking over any potential trade-offs. For example, if “the customer comes first”, what might that mean for employee welfare when it comes to opening hours and booking appointments, or if “our people are our most important asset”, how might that impact clients, patients and profitability? Don’t “go down the rabbit hole” here – there are always dilemmas and trade-offs around values that are not easily reconcilable, and this session is all about exploration and getting a flavour of what’s most important
- Vote to narrow the choices down to a core set of between three and six values
Part 3 – discuss interpretations
For the last 40 to 60 minutes, discuss as a team and write down some behaviours, actions and short descriptions demonstrating what each value means and how they could and should be applied in your everyday work (Figure 2). Key questions to consider include:
- What does this value mean to us?
- What’s the best way of wording the value?
- What does it look like in action?
- How might it be misinterpreted or misapplied?
- How will we evaluate adherence to it?
- How will it change our relationships and interactions with our clients, patients and each other?
Stage 3 – consolidate
Following the meeting, a nominated team member should produce drafts of the wording for the chosen values, which can then be tailored appropriately for use across different media. This could include the employee handbook, internal documents and communication channels, posters for the waiting room, consultation room and staff areas, brochures, the website and social media platforms.
Once this is done, bring your team back together to discuss the drafts, reconvening as many times as necessary until you have a set that everyone is united behind.
Stage 4 – integrate
Once you’ve created your values, commit to actions that support them and incorporate them into the operations and culture of the practice. For example:
- Lead by example with daily actions and interactions – if, for example, openness and transparency is a value and you neglect to communicate important information or involve the team in important decisions, it will signal that the values are not real or important
- Communicate – you might create a presentation for new starters that outlines your values and associated behaviours, explaining what they are and how and why they came about. Refer to the them in meetings and correspondence and reference them when decision making
- Embed – integrate them into your HR systems, such as interviews, inductions, appraisals, recognition and rewards, and don’t tolerate behaviour from anyone that doesn’t meet the standards set by the values. Review policies and procedures to ensure they align: for example, if compassion is a core aspect, ensure your guidelines for handling difficult situations emphasise empathy and kindness
- Share – communicate your values to clients, explaining how they translate into better patient care, and ask for their feedback on how they perceive the practice’s commitment to its values. Demonstrate them in the community: for example, if sustainability is a value, participate in local environmental clean-ups. Regularly share stories, testimonials and case studies that showcase the values in action
Stage 5 – evolve
You can evaluate how well your values impact team morale, patient care, client satisfaction and business performance through observation, feedback and surveys, as well as by tracking performance metrics in those areas. (Also consider the other methods you included in your breakdowns.)
You can evaluate how well your values impact team morale, patient care, client satisfaction and business performance through observation, feedback and surveys, as well as by tracking performance metrics
It is worth periodically reviewing and, if necessary, updating your values to ensure they remain relevant (I recommend annually as part of the budgeting process). You should also put an ongoing feedback mechanism in place for providing suggestions or raising concerns relating to the values so areas for improvement can be identified.
Aligning with a new set of values
When you are joining a business with an established set of values or are in a situation where they are changing (perhaps following a change of practice ownership), having clarity and aligning with the new ones from the outset is crucial.
In both examples, hopefully much of the hard work will have been done early on, with the compatibility of the values assessed as part of the recruitment or acquisition process and interpretations made clear in company documentation as part of the onboarding process. But if not, you will need the answers to some of the key questions outlined above in stage 2, part 2, along with:
- In what way are they similar to and different from my/our current values and ways of working?
- Is my/our interpretation of each one compatible with their interpretation?
If you find misalignment, it may be time to move on, although not without first taking the opportunity to reassess what’s important to you and whether your own values still hold relevance.
Ensuring values are meaningful
In conclusion, to ensure you have a set of values that truly guide behaviour, shape culture and benefit your patients, clients, team and business, you should:
- Consult with colleagues when deciding on values so they are well thought-out and more likely to be adopted
- Ensure your values are aligned with your practice’s vision, mission and business model
- Avoid vague or generic values that are too open to interpretation – be specific about what they mean in practice
- Don’t have too many – they should be easy for people to remember and prioritise, so having between three and six core ones is common
- Acknowledge trade-offs and don’t over-emphasise one value at the expense of others – find the right balance
- Communicate and remind people, inside and outside of practice, of your values at every opportunity
- Reinforce them through recognition, rewards and consequences
- Lead by example and ensure your values are applied consistently across all departments and individuals
- Adapt them over time – they can become outdated and hold the business back if they aren’t regularly reviewed and refreshed
Adapt [your values] over time – they can become outdated and hold the business back if they aren’t regularly reviewed and refreshed