More often than not, I find veterinary leaders are like horses with blinders on; clueless to the environment around them, only able to see their own path.
Some of you may have bristled with defensiveness reading that opener. Stick with me for a moment.
When I speak to veterinary leaders I often share a belief that sounds a bit like this - "I think the vast majority of veterinary leaders are good people doing they best they can with what they have, each and every day." Honestly, I've met very few truly bad eggs in veterinary leadership positions. In truth, almost all of you have good intentions and do genuinely care about the people in your stead.
Intention in caring are good qualities. Alone, though, they are insufficient. Combined with a position of authority they often lead to good-hearted, clueless people.
A recent survey conducted by our friends at Deloitte shines light on my meaning. 2100 team members and leaders were asked about their workplace experience. The findings suggest a wide gap of understanding between those in leadership and those they lead.
For example, 84% of leaders reported their current state of mental well-being as "good" or "excellent". Only 59% of team members reported the same, a difference of 25%.
More troubling, while 90% of leaders said they fully understand the challenges their team members face each day, only 47% of team members agreed. Perhaps most striking, only 56% of team members agreed with the statement, "Leadership cares about me."
The survey also found that while 76% of leaders said that work has a positive impact on their mental wellbeing, less than half of team members felt the same way. Only 37% of team members find work to be a positive contributor to their wellbeing while almost the same amount (34%) report work actually harms their sense of wellbeing.
More than ever, work is a central part of our lives. Especially in vet med, we spend countless hours in, at, and around our work. Work isn't just where we make a living, it's a primary place of making meaning of our lives.
Perhaps work shouldn't be something we simply survive. Certainly, work shouldn't harm us. Rather, I think work should be a contributor to our sense of fulfillment and thriving. It seems to be doing that for many leaders. It's time we close the gap and extend that experience to everyone on the team.
Most leaders agree. And for those who are skeptical of wellbeing initiative, consider this - workplace wellbeing may contribute to employee performance and longevity in an organization. And informal research being conducted by Flourish right now suggests workplace wellbeing may predict these things in veterinary medicine specifically, and that leadership behaviors may have a direct impact on it. More to come on that in the near future.
What's a leader to do? The first step toward closing the gap involves removing the blinders.
Measuring What We Intend to Change
When I managed veterinary hospitals I subscribed to the cliché, "we can only properly manage what we actually measure." It's why I paid such close attention to the P&L, balance sheet, and KPI tracker.
If only I had put as much effort into measuring my team's workplace experience.
There is no such thing as a healthy business without healthy people. But most of us rely on our intuition to keep us informed on the "state of the team". It blows my mind. No leader would ever rely on intuition to track cash flow.
"I mean, it's felt pretty busy lately. I bet we've got a ton of cash in the bank. Sure, go ahead and buy the new ultrasound!"
Not a chance.
So why do we do that with people? Deloitte's work should clearly show us the folly of our methodology. Let's rectify that.
There are many ways you could accomplish this. Here are three ideas to get you started:
eNPS: NPS stands for Net Promoter Score. Originally a client-facing metric, the theory is that we can get a rough, but robust, understanding of our client's overall experience by asking one simple question, "How likely are you to recommend our clinic to your family or friends?" eNPS turns the focus introspectively by asking employees, "If a job position opened up here, how likely are you to recommend this clinic to family or friends as a good place to work?" Participants choose a score between 1 and 10 with 10 being something along the lines of "absolutely". Anyone who responds with a 9 or 10 is considered a "promoter". 6 or lower is a "detractor". 7s and 8s are neutral. Take the % of promoters and subtract the percentage of detractors for your eNPS score. Ideally that score would be a positive (with 100 being the highest possible). You could send this single item to your team as an anonymous survey every 1-3 months. Review the data and act accordingly.
Write Your Own: Pick a few (3-5 items is a good place to start) important team member experience items you'd like to track. For example, you might ask some of the same questions Deloitte did. Create an anonymous survey and share it with your team every quarter. Try to put some thought into the questions you ask and stick with them for a period of time. It's best to track trends so you can effectively address opportunities and have some sense of the impact of your interventions.
Get a Fresh Perspective: One of the reasons leaders often miss the gap between their perceptions and their team's real lived experience is because for many teams it is difficult (or may even feel impossible) for them to express themselves openly and candidly. Put another way, they put on a "game face" at work to appease "the boss". If we're not intentionally and consistently cultivating psychological safety with our team they are likely to withhold important information. As you seek to build up their comfort and hear their honest perspective you may consider having an objective outside party like Flourish conduct a survey or two on your behalf. We have found teams are sometimes more willing to be candid when they know their "data" is coming directly to us instead of "the boss".
Act On It
Now that you've measured their experience, act on it. I tend to recommend the following process:
Announce the survey and why it's important to you. Be genuine, be a bit vulnerable, and be honest. If you don't really care about their wellbeing don't pretend. (Actually, remove yourself from leadership. As far as I'm concerned if you don't care about their wellbeing you don't belong in the position to influence it.)
Launch the survey. Keep it open for a week or less. Make it optional and encourage participation. Their voice matters!
Close the survey and let them know. This is a great time to thank them for participating and let them know when they can expect to hear the results. Set a reasonable deadline for yourself to share your findings but lean toward sooner than later. The longer they wait they more they grow skeptical of your intentions.
Share the results. Do not defend or question what you find. Be honest and as non-judgmental as possible. Give them the opportunity to digest the data and share their thoughts.
Pick one thing to focus on to improve (even better if the team gets a say in it!). Then (preferably as a team) identify 1 - 3 tangible action items to make the improvement. Vocalize the action items clearly and be sure everyone understands what to expect.
Act on it.
Repeat the entire process.
It's a worthy goal to strive toward a workplace in which everyone thrives. Heck, that's why I started Flourish Veterinary Consulting in the first place.
It's also a big, bold, audacious goal. Equally worthy is seeking understanding and doing the best we can to make an often challenging environment a little bit better.
You do not need to weave miracles to make a difference. Giving your team a voice, leaning into what they share with curiosity, and showing an effort to consistently make a collective effort to make things better may not solve all their problems. But it will definitely help. More than you might imagine.
Now go take those blinders off and open your eyes to the possibility.