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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Productive Veterinary Teams are Led with Joy: Here's How.

Years ago, I worked with a veterinarian who, to put it mildly, took himself and his work very seriously. We’ll call him Serious Steve.

“This is serious business,” was a phrase I’d hear him utter with troubling frequency.

Don’t get me wrong, veterinary medicine is not a practice to be taken lightly. A gaffe or momentary lack of focus in our work could contribute to disaster.

That said, doing serious work and being serious are often two different things.

And the human brain was simply not built to be serious all the time.

Case in point – I know of a veterinary hospital who might give the veterinarian mentioned above a coronary. We’ll call their manager Jokey Jen.

The majority of this team do anything but take themselves too seriously as evidenced by the jokes, pranks, and laughter often heard throughout the building. Even throughout the COVID pandemic they found ways to bring joy to their work – to the point that when it was time to let clients back in the building they needed to make sincere efforts to “reign in the professionalism”.

Serious Steve ran a tight, “professional” ship. For the most part, the medicine practiced was good and clients were happy. But it was far from perfect there as the team struggled to create a learning environment with open communication.

People were far too scared of showing (any) emotion.

That practice also had a high turnover rate and an unusually high number of discontented clients.

Jokey Jen, on the other hand, approaches her team environment with all the tightness of a wet noodle. She encourages fun and play while also holding her team to a high standard of care and service.

Their medicine is top notch, client satisfaction is through the roof, and in a year when many veterinary professionals felt pushed to the brink, this hospital had almost zero staff turnover.

Not to mention, their business continued to grow.

Maybe there’s a correlation here. At least the science thinks so.

Joy and Resilience

I like to define resilience as the ability to respond productively to a challenge or crisis. At the group level, we might say a veterinary team shows strong resilience when, as a group, they respond productively to adversity.

If ever there was a time when the colors of team resilience might soak through, it’s these past 16 months.

In presentations, I often check in with attendees to see how they have been doing. I ask them to consider the past 30 days and share with me which statement most closely describes how they are feeling:

  1. I’ve been consistently thriving.

  2. I’ve been doing well despite the struggles I’ve faced.

  3. I’m not doing bad, just getting by.

  4. I’ve been consistently struggling.

Even in these challenging times I do occasionally get someone who says they are consistently thriving.

More often, I see the majority of responses in options 2, 3, and 4.

Every so often, though, I find a team full of people “doing well despite struggle”.

I want to be clear here – resilience is not about living a life of ice cream and sprinkles and so a resilient team doesn’t experience good vibes 100% of the team.

Rather, resilient teams find ways to do well despite the struggles they face. And they do it together.

That sense of "togetherness" is cultivated.

Jokey Jen’s team has learned to struggle together, supporting each other, through good and bad.

According to recently published research, it’s no surprise they are also quite resilient.

Researchers conducted two time-spaced surveys across 135 different work teams comprising more than 1400 employees in a high-stress, challenging work environment.

They measured these team’s resiliency and “culture of joy”. A culture of joy is defined as, “the behavioral norms and artifacts, as well as the underlying values and assumptions, that guide the expression (or suppression) of [joy and other positive emotions] and the appropriateness of displaying those emotions within a [team].”

The first surveys measured these two variables on day 1. The second survey re-measured the same variables 1 year later.

Changes in scores were analyzed and the results might send shockwaves through Serious Steve’s world.

Unequivocally, as the culture of joy scores increased, so did the team resilience.

Simply put, a team that is encouraged to experience joy in their workplace appears to be better equipped to productively respond to they joyless challenges and crises they will inevitably face.

Work According to Cyndi Lauper

Veterinary professionals just wanna have fun.

OK, I get it, part of being a professional is taking our work seriously.

And, taking our work too seriously runs the risk of sucking the fun – and energy – out of the team environment. That’s problematic for two reasons:

  1. Neutral or negative emotional states tend to narrow access to cognitive resources. That is, we can’t learn, grow, pivot, evolve, collaborate, and a whole host of other beneficial behaviors nearly as well when primed for negative or neutral.

  2. The research is clear, teams are not nearly as a resilient in an culture missing positive emotions like joy – and we definitely need to support our resilience these days.

So how do leaders support a culture of joy in their teams? Here’s some ideas:

  • Be a Joy-Lover: Start noticing when you’re taking your work – and your team’s work – too seriously and simply loosen up. The next time you hear Serious Steve in your head, acknowledge him and then turn and walk away. You don’t have to listen to him. Better to listen to the laughter in the treatment area and smile knowing your team is making a deposit into their resilience bank account.

  • Seek Out Joy: Conduct mini-check ins with team member to learn about when, and how, they experience positive states like joy at work. Look for times they look alive and energized. Take note and ask them about it later. “I noticed you were full of joy this morning when wrestling that giant Mastiff. Tell me more about that.” Then find ways to encourage more of that!

  • Nurture Relationships: The ability to experience joy – especially around “the boss” – is built on psychological safety. And psychological safety is built on a foundation of trusting relationships. You’ve got to develop those relationships with each member of your team. So do that! Learn something new about someone on the team each and every week. Remember what you learned and ask more about it later. Show people you care and that they matter. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more likely they are to productively “let loose” at work.

One final tip - a culture of joy should not become a culture of toxic positivity. Part of the reason joy can contribute to resilience in a team is because the environment allows for all emotional experiences. In other words, we build resilient teams by cultivating psychological safety. In this way, it is safe to be "authentically me" at work for everyone on the team.

Sometimes our work is going to be so hard the superpower of resilience may look like just getting by. While that's not joy, in the moment, it is still resilience.

When we’ve passed the storm, then we can find a way to joke about it.

In that way, we’ll build a bit more resilience for the next obstacle.

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