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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Blunder to Better: One Way to Maintain a Motivated Veterinary Team

It's better to get it right than to be right.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

That’s how we might describe our newest CSR, technician, or associate veterinarian.

For far too many of them, that shining light of energized motivation seems to peak on the first day at our hospital, only to wane and dissipate over time.

Why? Why can’t our employees seem to hold their enthusiasm for longer than their first few days on the job?

I think at least some of it has to do with fear.

Psychological Safety

I’ve had the honor of crossing paths with thousands and thousands of veterinary professionals in my career. From kennel techs to medical directors, client service representatives to hospital owners, in the US, Canada, and Europe I have found a common theme among them.

The vast majority – probably approaching 99.999% - are good people doing the best they can with what they have.

It’s led me to a saying I use a lot. “In veterinary medicine there are very few bad people leading. Rather, there are many very good people, leading badly.”

I believe that wholeheartedly.

And it should come as no surprise. Very, very few of us get any sort of formal, evidence-based leadership training. We sort of stumble into leadership and do our best to learn as we go.

That doesn't obsolve us from our responsibility. As leaders we have an incredible amount of influence over our team’s and organization’s culture and environment. This directly impacts our employee’s experience at work and whether they feel energized and motivated, apathetic and just getting by, or worse.

But one thing continues to be true. Almost all veterinary professionals do intend to do the best they can, to BE the best they can.

Unless it is unsafe to do so.

Dr. Amy Edmondon’s research has shined a spotlight on a team phenomenon that, truthfully, has existed so long as human beings have worked together in groups. It’s called psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief within a team that, in this team, it is safe to take interpersonal risks – that if I make a human error, stumble, lack a skill or ability, struggle, suggest a new way of thinking or doing something, challenge myself or others to be the better version of who we are I will not be punished.

Punishment comes in a variety of flavors. In some truly toxic team environments punishment is overt – yelling, screaming, admonishment, ostracizing, even throwing objects. More often than not, though, the punishment is subtle.

Dismissing out of hand. Rolling eyes. A deep sigh of disapproval. Favoritism.

Any way we cut it, if the environment doesn’t allow us to be fully human one way or another we will be afraid at work.

Afraid of looking like a fool. Afraid of appearing incompetent or incapable. Afraid of being excluded or looked down at. Afraid of not fitting in.

This is a team phenomenon, no doubt. So, everyone on the team plays a role. Each of us, in every interaction, are making deposits into the psychological safety account for our team, are taking withdrawals.

That said, leaders have the most influence. A team can compensate for a leader who instills fear but they will struggle to completely overcome it.

A leader, however, has the power to enable an environment in which everyone on the team is safe to soar toward their individual and collective potential.

If you want your team to be resilient, creative, innovative, and able to pivot and evolve in the face of challenges, you need to be cultivating, nurturing, and maintaining psychological safety in the environment.

Here’s one way to get you started.

Blunder to Better

At its core, psychological safety is about creating a learning environment.

Adam Grant conducted an informal experiment at the Gates Foundation in which he encouraged leaders to share a past mistake they learned something from. And not just share – actually record a video of them fully admitting to a past mistake and sharing the lesson it taught them.

The head of the organization, Melinda Gates (yes, THAT Melinda Gates) went first. The results were powerful.

She had sent a clear message to the entire organization that, at the Gates Foundation, we are dedicated to getting it right, even if it costs us being right from time to time. We are people, we are fallible, and we can choose to protect our egos or choose to learn and grow together.

One of these will actually help us get closer to our vision for a better world.

You, dear veterinary leader, can put this superpower to use as well.

Here are two ways to do just that:

  1. Boss’s Blunder: What made the Gates Foundation experiment so powerful was that it came from leadership. Grant conducted a similar experiment but with team members. It did boost psychological safety temporarily, but the effect didn’t last more than a few weeks. With the leader intervention it seemed to last far longer. I’m not necessarily suggesting you record a video to share throughout your hospital or organization (though you certainly could!). But you can definitely find a way to routinely share your stumbles and blunders with your team in effective ways. Perhaps at each month’s staff meeting you set aside 5 minutes to share a gaffe you experienced from the past month. The catch here is to share something you clearly learned something valuable from. Remember, this is about creating a learning environment in which we all get better, together.

  2. Get the Team Involved: Once you’ve made it clear that mistakes are not to be punished but rather learned from, you can encourage your team to join in. Perhaps you include them on the blunder sharing – for 5 minutes after you share yours, you encourage one or two team members to do the same. Make it a part of what you do. Heck, you could even make it fun – I’ve recommended to some hospitals to host Blunder Awards. Everyone gets to nominate their favorite “Screw Up We Learned The Most From”….a committee then votes on the top 1 or 3 and you pass out awards at a hospital “Award Ceremony.” As this becomes a part of your culture, use it during your onboarding as well. When you bring new members onto the team, host a quick Blunder Share with the team they will work most closely with. Gather the new employee, their manager, and the team they will work with and have the manager and each member of the team share a recent blunder they learned something from. Let the new employee know, this is how we grow together and encourage them to be on the lookout for a blunder they are learning from so they can share with everyone else. Heck, they might even win a Blunder Award!

As Brene Brown so eloquently puts it, in a psychologically safe team, everyone is dedicated to getting it right even if it means they won’t always be right.

When we enable a team environment of learning and growth, we energize people to soar toward their potential. In this way, the team thrives, and we make ever better contributions to the worthy goals of our work.

If that won’t keep folks energized and motivated for the long run, nothing will.

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