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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The One Thing Most Veterinary Leaders Get Wrong

I adore veterinary professionals.

In over 20 years in this community I’ve had the honor of meeting, working with, working for, and supporting thousands and thousands of veterinary professionals. Consistently I find them to be some of the most compassionate, kind, giving, intelligent, talented, witty, innovative, and just plain fun people I know.

That’s why I love them so much.

I also love that they are Real.

I capitalized that on purpose. Veterinary professionals tend to be real, honest, no bullshit kind of people with real problems and real flaws.

And I love that about them too. Because, they aren’t perfect and they don’t profess to be.

But they are willing – even eager – to grow and improve.

Which is why I’m comfortable pointing out one of the common flaws I see.

We – as in the veterinary community – somehow expect the people around us to have boundless reservoirs of enthusiastic motivation. Every moment of every day.

And when we are in a leadership position, this expectation only seems to become more voracious and forceful.

As a former hospital owner and manager, I get it.

Team isn’t doing everything I expect them to, perfectly, with a big ass smile on their face, every single moment of every single day?

No problem.

I’ll policy and procedure and corrective action plan and staff meeting and email and one-on-one them to death. Until they get their shit together and happily kick ass. Perfectly.

Maybe it’s because we work in medicine. Maybe it’s the natural perfectionist in us. But when our team isn’t meeting our expectations with precision our automatic response seems to be micromanagement.

And that’s a problem.

It doesn’t work.

They don’t meet our expectations. We tighten the micromanagement noose. Things get worse and we tighten it even more. Eventually, they run out of air.

And they jump ship.

There’s a scientific explanation for this. It’s called Self Determination Theory and it has decades of research to back it up.

Here’s the theory in a nutshell.

Self Determination Theory in a Nutshell

We (as in human beings) tend to be motivated to action from two sources; intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic sources of motivation are internal. For example, the desire to do something because it matches our values. Or, taking action because it feeds a passion.

Extrinsic sources of motivation are external. For example, completing a project by a deadline because of a bonus. Or, feeling compelled out of a sense of obligation to a friend, colleague, or significant other.

Intrinsic motivators tend to be sustainable and energizing. In fact, when motivated intrinsically, we can often endure very difficult tasks for long periods of time with relative ease. It’s as if intrinsic motivation fuels our resilience.

Extrinsic motivators tend to be short-lived and depleting. We might get a burst of energy to complete a task but in doing so we exhaust our resources. And, extrinsic motivation tends to need to be repeated and “upped”, sort of like a drug. Worked hard on that project for the bonus? Now we’ll need an even bigger bonus to work just as hard on the next project.

In most cases, it isn’t either/or with these sources of motivation. There is often some combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at work.

For example, I can be motivated to do work because it feels meaningful (intrinsic) AND because I’ll be compensated for it (extrinsic).

The Problem With Most Veterinary Manager’s Approach

The problem I often see with veterinary managers and leaders is that when the “going gets tough” – when the team or an employee isn’t up to snuff in our eyes – we tend to resort to extrinsic motivators.

Sometimes this works. But, in the long run, it’s inefficient at best, detrimental at worst. Here’s two reasons why:

  1. It depletes energy. I’m conducting a study looking at the lived experience of vitality (energy) at work among credentialed veterinary technicians. I ask them to describe times they felt really energized at work followed by stories of times they felt particularly exhausted. In several examples, the times they felt the most exhausted (and moving toward burnout) is when extrinsic forces were thrust upon them at the expense of their intrinsic sources of motivation. Another recent study shows that productivity actually goes down in the absence of intrinsic sources of motivation at work.

  2. It’s short lived. Positive external motivators (such as money or reward) are subject to what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. We are driven to achieve it but once we get there, the “high” wears off relatively quickly and must be replaced by a new motivator. Negative external motivators (such as fear of getting in trouble or losing a job) tends to engender a “just enough” approach. That’s one reason productivity takes a hit.

A Better Way

So what can we do, as managers and leaders, to maximize the intrinsic motivation within our teams?

Leverage positive extrinsic motivators with consistent and intentional intrinsic motivators. Here are 4 things to help you do that:

  1. Positive Extrinsic Motivators: Don’t eliminate the extrinsic sources. Just try and keep them positive. For example, fair compensation should be a given. How we are paid at work is a reflection of how our work (and we as humans) are valued. Be sure to value people appropriately.

  2. Autonomy: Find ways to empower your teams and individual employees with a sense of control over their work. Routinely ask them questions like, “What do you think?” or “How would you approach this?” Include them in decision making as much as you can. Find ways to let them make their own decisions about “how” things are done for the goals you set. When people aren't doing what we want, as leaders we often seek to control them more. The truth is, to engender enthusiastic motivation (and ownership) in our employees we need to cede control - they need to feel like they have some agency over their work.

  3. Connection: Personally get to know your people to the best of your ability. Encourage them to get to know each other. And, help them find opportunities to get to know the human beings your hospital serves. Create physical spaces in the hospital for social gathering. Build social time into the schedule and/or set aside time for free-flowing social interaction. Focus on the purpose of the work and the positive contributions people make to each other, the patients, the clients, and the community. Share stories of connection and meaning from the work.

  4. Growth: Provide ample opportunities for people to grow and improve their skills and abilities in meaningful ways. You may even consider helping them grow beyond “just the work”. Learn about character strengths throughout the team and leverage them in positive ways. Celebrate effort and behavior that matches the hospital’s values, not just achievement. Reward competence and mastery, even if it doesn’t directly benefit the hospital’s bottom line.

Here’s the thing. You can motivate people with a carrot and stick or whips and chains. Enticements, rewards, yelling and screaming all get people to take action and do things.

But if you want the best out of people. And if you want to lead in a way that energizes them – and you – in a sustainable way, you need more than prizes or threats.

You need to meet their human needs.

If you do, that’s where the magic happens.

Now go weave your incredible spells you awesome wizard-leader.

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