If you haven’t read Dan Ariely’s entertaining, highly-readable and best-selling book Predictably Irrational, consider adding it to your summer reading list. Ariely, a cognitive psychologist at Duke, designed and conducted many experiments that illuminate some surprising reasons that guide behavior. Many of these experiments have relevance for the way that medical practice administrators manage their staff for greater productivity.

Many of Ariely’s study participants are college students that are paid modestly for their efforts to complete routine tasks – i.e., their incomes are low enough that small increases should matter.  In one such experiment, the subjects were paid to identify and circle instances where the same letter appeared side-by-side on a page of text.  Test subjects were paid for each page on a descending scale – the most for the first page and less for each subsequent page – until they declined to continue.  Students were randomly assigned to groups that would have one of three variations on this basic theme:

1)      Subject wrote name on page, the examiner visually scanned the page and gave a verbal cue to acknowledge the work before placing the work on the pile of worksheets.

2)      Subject did not write name on page. Examiner simply placed the finished page on a pile without visually scanning or acknowledging.

3)      Subject did not write name on page. Examiner immediately placed finished worksheet into shredder.

If participants cared solely for the compensation they received, the study results would indicate that all three groups ceased to work at approximately the same pay rate (remember the descending pay rate).  The study results showed that the group that had its work shredded immediately upon completion stopped working at almost twice the pay rate than the group that had its work cursorily acknowledged. The group that had its unnamed worked immediately placed on a pile? It stopped working at very nearly the same pay rate as the group that had its work shredded!

These findings are consistent with what we find in our tour of medical practices across the country.  When we talk with practice staff members, we find that the simple act of asking them for feedback on how to improve the practice usually has a noticeable and positive effect on staff morale.  It is striking how little acknowledgement it takes to motivate a staff. Consistently taking a little time to acknowledge and thank employees is critical to maintain a happy and productive staff that sets the right tone for your patient visits.

by Joe Capko

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