There’s a growing buzz in the veterinary world around this wonderful word, “culture.” As employers trying to attract veterinary professionals, we sing the melodies of our wonderful hospital cultures. As leaders of a team we profess to be cultivating an organizational culture in which everyone is valued. To our clients we talk about our clinic’s culture of caring in hopes it will provide us some competitive advantage.
All great stuff!
But how many of us understand what “culture” really is and how to influence it in a positive way?
I recently came across a wonderful analogy for culture. In 1976, the famed anthropologist and culture researcher, Edward T. Hall, published his groundbreaking work, “Beyond Culture.” In it he described the culture of a group of people (for our purposes, the culture of a group of veterinary professionals working in the same hospital) as an iceberg.
For those of you who haven’t seen the classic Leonardo DiCaprio film, “Titanic,” an iceberg is a chunk of ice floating free in the ocean. When we approach one of these natural beasts what we see above the waterline is only about 10% of its full mass. That is, the observable part of the iceberg is only a small portion compared to what is unobservable. Culture – in nations and organizations – is much the same way.
What we see in any organizational culture are artifacts – stories, jargon, policies and procedures, directives, etc. The spoken and written word. What we “say” is expected and shared. What we don’t see are the norms, values, beliefs and assumptions driving our actions, behavior, and reactions to what’s going on around us.
That’s where the magic happens…. or fails to launch.
See, there’s this thing called negativity bias that I think is messing with many of our veterinary team cultures. Basically, our brains are built in a way to be more sensitive to the “dangers” in our environment.
Don’t get me wrong, the negativity bias is a wonderful evolutionary benefit. When the ability to quickly react and respond to physical threats back in the caveman days meant the difference between life (e.g., passing on our genes) and death, the negativity bias literally helped us survive. That said, we don’t live on the open plains with vicious beasts trying to make us their dinner anymore. However, this primal part of our brain can’t distinguish between a large, furry creature trying to eat us and our co-worker’s bad attitude. Both, to the brain, feel like “danger.”
How does this apply to the veterinary workplace? I promise I’m going to make a valuable point here. Stick with me for a moment.
I recently looked at an online forum in which veterinary professionals can go to post questions looking for advice about business matters in their hospital. I pulled up the most recent 50 posts and read the title and original message in each one. What I found was divided into three buckets – positive, neutral, and negative.
For example, if the post was something simple like, “What scanner works best with my practice management software?”, I put it in the neutral bucket.
If the post was something along the lines of, “One of my technicians is so good at teching but man she is a bear to work with. I’m at my wit’s end. What do I do with this person?”, it went in the negative bucket.
Finally, if the poster said something like, “We offer continuing education opportunities to all our staff and they always come back excited and energized by their new knowledge. How can I help them celebrate what they learned and spread the knowledge around?”, I put it in the positive bucket.
What I found was both striking and unsurprising.
33 of the posts ended up in the neutral category. 16 ended up in the negative pile. Only 1 qualified as positive.
The negativity bias living its best life.
You may say, “who cares?” I do! Why else would I be writing about it?
Ok, honestly, I do care because it makes me wonder how our values and behaviors (the 90% of the culture iceberg!) are coming alive through our leadership in our veterinary hospitals. Are we focusing attention on the strengths and value of our teams or the problems and “brokenness”?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all suggesting we ignore what needs fixing. What I am saying is that when we let the negativity bias drive the 90% of our hospital cultures what we get is a negative culture. Our questions – where we place the bulk of our curiosity and attention – are what mold our reality.
And the research clearly shows human beings thrive only when they experience a high ratio of positive experiences to negative experiences. For teams and organizations, this ratio is even more critical to the overall performance of the business.
But yeah, it takes work. Our brains aren’t naturally built this way just like our muscles aren’t naturally built like The Rock’s. The good news is where we intentionally place our energy rewires our brain to attend to it. Over time this changes our norms, values, and behaviors. That’s when the magic really happens – when we build the muscles of the positive.
So, my challenge to all you veterinary leaders, is to attend to the things that need fixing….AND…. celebrate all the things that don’t.
- Written by Josh Vaisman