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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

A Belief Poisoning Veterinary Medicine

Biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are” – Verna Myers

We’re all humans, and in some way, all humans are biased.

The human brain is built to categorize. It allows us to think - and react – very quickly.

Imagine it’s 10,000 years ago and you’re out searching for food. Your eye catches the outline of a creature approaching. You don’t have to wait for this animal to get close, think about its intentions, and test your theory.

You just react. Quickly.

In this case, you get out of Dodge!

Through categorization, your brain has built a self-preservation bias against “potential predators”. This isn’t necessarily conscious – you don’t “think about it”. And, it isn’t always accurate. The creature might have just been a horse, for example.

But much of the time this automatic heuristic benefits you.

Here’s the challenge – our brain builds these categorical biases for most everything. And it’s primarily based in our personal experience. So it isn’t always universally accurate.

So it’s no shock there exists several biases in veterinary medicine. And some of them get ugly.

One bias is especially insidious because it’s rampant in vet med and we don’t really talk about it.

It’s also contagious.

For many years I was infected. And like all biases, although I see it now, it takes work to get the venom out of my blood.

I’m still fighting it.

It’s going to take some work for you too. Some love and compassion as well.

And empathy.

So what’s this awful bias I’m talking about?

Likely not the one you are thinking of (though racial bias, such as implicit bias against Blacks is real, ugly, and dangerous as well…and fully exists in veterinary medicine).

In this piece I’d like to address the “All People Suck” (or APS) bias.

How many times have you thought, said, or heard the following:

  • ·“Clients are so unreasonable/demanding/mean.”

  • ·“Technicians don’t like people.”

  • “It’s impossible to find reliable employees.”

  • “Doctors want to get paid the most for doing the least.”

  • “They’re only here for the paycheck.”

The list goes on.

And almost all of us are guilty.

Even on social media, I’ll routinely see veterinary folks say these things and, in a blink of an eye, countless others jump in to pile on in agreement. It feels good in the moment, but this goes beyond mere venting.

It’s called co-rumination and it’s detrimental to our collective well-being.

The problem with statements like these is twofold:

  1. They imply universality. As if ALL clients are unreasonable or ALL employees are unreliable ALL…THE…TIME.

  2. They imply negative intention. As if doctors want high pay and work/life balance because they are selfish AT THEIR CORE or technicians don’t like people because they are somehow flawed AS HUMAN BEINGS.

Here’s why it’s dangerous.

Intellectually, we all know not all clients are unreasonable, not all employees are unreliable, most doctors are anything but selfish, and most technicians are good and whole human beings.

Bias lives beneath the surface of these moments of thought and attention. Bias colors our subconscious reactions in ways we may not even notice.

That’s why, even when we know not all clients are demanding, when one is, we almost automatically say things like, “Ugh. Why are clients so damn demanding?”

When we build a story identifying an entire group as foundationally negative, bad, incapable, or broken we close the doors on understanding.

Why seek to understand what drives folks when, deep down, we already know.

In the absence of understanding is a loss of connection. Without connection, we’re left chasing our tails trying to “solve” the same problems over, and over, and over again.

Ever wonder why you’re putting out the same small fires every day?

That’s All People Suck bias at work. If people inherently suck, so will every day you interact with them.

This ugly bias is holding us back.

We need to learn to challenge our beliefs about others.

APS At Work

I recently read a story.

It involved a manager at a large retail store and an 18 year old employee.

This employee does a good job, for the most part, but her workspace and uniform tend to be a mess.

The store has a strict policy on appearance. Work spaces, and especially employee attire, MUST appear clean and professional at all times.

The manager thinks, “well of course this kid can’t get her shit together.”

These days, ALL 18 year old’s are immature and only care about themselves, after all.

The manager has a “sit down” with the employee. She reiterates the policy. The employee says she understands.

In short order the workspace cleanliness improves. But the uniform…still looks dirty and unkempt.

The manager finally decides it’s time to let this “bad egg” go. Thinking, “I’ll hire someone more mature and reliable,” she sits down with the employee to terminate her.

Only, just before launching into her well-crafted termination script, she pauses. Something in this young girl’s eyes catch her attention. So instead of firing her, the manager firsts asks for her side of the story.

Fearful at first, the employee balks. But eventually the manager earns enough trust and the employee spills.

At the age of 15, her parents abandoned her and her younger brother. She’s been living on her own, in a small room, with no stove or bath, caring for her brother, and barely scraping by to pay rent and put food on their tiny table.

She bathes herself daily in the sink since they have no shower or bath.

But, with only one company-issued uniform, she couldn’t figure out how to wash her shirt and have it dried and unwrinkled by the time her shift began the next day. So she only washed it on days off at the end of the week.

Surprised, the manager thought about it and, sure enough, recalled how the employee’s uniform was always clean as the week began, and most dirty at week’s end.

So the manager decided to break protocol. Not only did she keep this girl on payroll, she bent the rules and ordered her two more uniforms.

“The lesson I learned is there’s always a story behind the story. It’s my job as a leader to find out what that backstory is.”

This isn’t a parable. This really happened.

Exploring People's Magic - Breaking the “All People Suck” Bias

The All People Suck bias has been baked into vet med for decades. It’s not going away overnight, and certainly not because I’m writing this short piece.

But together, with commitment and time, we can break free from it.

And in doing so, we’ll begin building a foundation of empathy, trust, connection, and collaboration.

There’s a simple tool we all can use to help unleash these superpowers and send the All People Suck bias to the trash heap.

Three words. That’s it.

Help me understand.”

These three words place us in a mental state that says, “I think I know why you’re behaving this way. I could be wrong.” They help us challenge our beliefs in productive ways.

What the manager in that story did was open a door for understanding by asking, “I’ve spoken to you a few times about your dirty uniform and I have seen no improvement. Can you help me understand what’s going on here?”

The key here is genuine curiosity.

“Help me understand why you’re a fuck up” is NOT about curiosity. It’s about admonishment, condescension, and proving yourself *right*.

That’s the All People Suck bias at work.

Fight its venom.

Open your mind and heart to other possibilities.

“Help me understand what I currently do not.

That’s empathy in action. And research tells us empathetic leadership is the key to high performing, high functioning teams.

That takes courage. But if there’s one thing I know about veterinary professionals…you are some badass brave-hearts.

You don’t all suck. You’ve all got some powerful stories to share. And you are brave.

So here’s my plea to you, the veterinary community I love.

Challenge your hidden biases. Learn to seek the good in those around you. Practice curiosity to build your empathy muscles and connect with others. In turn, they will connect with you.

Those connections power our magic-for-good.

Our world is what we see it as. If we continue to see “All People Suck” that is precisely what we will get. If we can learn to dig a bit deeper, through the complexity of all human beings, we’ll find the truth and see the messy beauty we all share.

All of us have moments of “suckitude”. And all of us have good within us.

I am the client who snaps at you because my 13 year old Great Dane has fewer days before her than behind. The pain in knowing that is devastating and it’s challenging my patience.

I am the employee running late almost daily because every morning I am taking the time to check in on my mother who lives alone, and afraid, during a global pandemic. I’m her only routine social connection.

I am the doctor complaining about my pay and hours because the combined stress of my $350,000 in student loans and 60 hour work weeks away from my young child is breaking me. I seriously do not know how much longer I can last.

Let me help you understand, and you’ll see.

I am good. And so are you.

You got this. I believe in you.

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