The Veterinary Leader's Guide to Energizing a High Performing Team
The vast majority of people who work for us genuinely want to do a good job - it's up to us, as leaders, to enable the environment that lets them achieve that.
Years ago I worked as a tech at a bustling small animal hospital. This practice had a great reputation in the community and a team of 6 talented, compassionate doctors.
From the outside looking in it was the ideal place to work.
From the outside looking in.
Internally, it was a bit rough.
The hospital owner was almost entirely absent, only "visiting" the practice once or twice a week. When she was in the hospital, she spent most of her time tending to her own personal activities or cajoling her "favorite" team members.
We had a manager but the role was part time and, frankly, she had little authority beyond handling the books and paying bills.
In this absence of real leadership distinct cliques formed throughout the hospital. Despite my natural gregariousness, I worked there a year and struggled to connect with at least half the team.
Like the majority of you, I take my work seriously so every day I showed up on time (or a few minutes early) and hit the ground running as best I could. The two performance reviews I had were flowing. In fact, I was given a substantial raise just weeks before I quit.
From the outside looking in, I appeared to the manager and owner as a "performer", successfully completing all the tasks expected of me, helping my team members, and doing good work.
If you could go back in time to the weeks before I submitted my resignation and asked the manager or owner if I was happy there, I'd be willing to bet my favorite box of ice cream sandwiches they would emphatically say "Yes!"
From the outside looking in, I bet my level of performance gave them the impression I was a happy employee, likely to stay on the team for a long time.
From the outside looking in.
The Complex Interplay Between Work Wellbeing and Work Performance
You may not buy it me but I'll take this belief to my grave - the vast majority of people who work for us genuinely want to do a good job.
There's a drive inside almost every human being to perform well at the work expected of them.
When I first stared my tech job at this hospital I was driven. I wanted to make a good impression and work toward increased responsibility and capability. And I was excited to be there!
You might say my work wellbeing - or rather, the vigor and vitality I had at work - was high and my performance matched it.
Over time, though, the energy I felt at work began to dissipate.
The in-hospital politics began to emerge. Support from my manager and hospital owner was minimal at best. I knew the general job description but had little clarity about my future or the hospital's goals. If I didn't directly pursue them, opportunities for growth and learning were almost nill. And, outside a raise 6 months in, accompanied by a nebulous, non-specific, "you're doing a great job!", I rarely got any feedback on my performance or where I needed to improve.
In short order I grew quite unhappy there.
But my drive to do well overcame my unhappiness, at least enough to make it appear I was still a "performer".
You might say my work vitality was low but I still showed up and did all my work well enough to look like a good employee.
After a few months of tolerating this, I quit.
Although they were shocked, no one ever asked me why. They only muttered to each other, "but he just got a raise!"
This is the problem with relying solely on work performance as a metric for employee "happiness" - the vast majority of us will do good work, even when we are unhappy. It's in our nature as human beings. All the while, we are imagining - even planning for - our exit from the doldrums of our unfulfilling circumstances.
Simply put, your perception of a team member's quality of work may not match their level of vitality and fulfillment within their work. It's more complex than that.
Often, with me, the team member quietly going about their business doing "good work" is actually quite unhappy in their role. Sometimes, even the high performers are slowly degrading their workplace vitality in the throes of "workaholism".
There is hope, though. Some simple interventions on my manager or owner's part might have revitalized the fire within me and unleashed the furthest reaches of my performance.
You can help your team do better and feel better at work, all at the same time.
THE Manager's Guide to Energizing a High Performing Team
I like to jokingly tell veterinary leaders that if your only goal is to motivate, flying scalpel blades and threats of termination should do the job.
But I don't think that's actually what we're after. I think what we want is to enable energetic motivation in our team. The kind of motivation that looks like "want to" instead of "have to".
A recent study may help us see what enables exactly that - a team of thriving, vitalized, high-performers.
In this compelling study, researchers looked at data from almost 6000 employees in the demanding, stressful banking sector. Careful analysis of the data suggested there were at least five groups represented:
Those with low wellbeing and low performance (12%)
Those with high wellbeing and medium performance (20%)
Those with low wellbeing and medium performance (21%)
Those with high wellbeing and high performance (31%)
Those with high wellbeing and exceptional performance (16%)
Although I started as a high wellbeing and high performing employee, a few months into my tenure at that veterinary practice I was in category #3 - low wellbeing and medium performance.
To the absentee owner and disengaged manager I probably still looked like a high performer. But internally, I had one foot out the door to protect me from the impending misery and diminishing performance.
In the above study, researchers looked for factors that seemed to predict which category team members landed in. The results were fascinating.
Four factors clearly predicted employee wellbeing:
Learning Opportunities - I have clear opportunities to learn, grow, improve, and expand my capabilities.
Performance Feedback - I routinely hear from my peers on the quality of my performance and how I can get even better.
Autonomy - I have meaningful control over how I work and how I accomplish what is expected of me. Put another way, I am not micromanaged.
Social Support - I can count on my manager and peers to support me when needed.
Of course, we can have high workplace wellbeing but still not be a high performer. Two factors combined with the above four to clearly predict both employee wellbeing AND high performance:
Role Clarity - I clearly understand what is expected of my in my job and role. I clearly understand my team and organization's goals and the direction we are going.
Manager Feedback - My manager routinely provides me with meaningful feedback on my performance and how I can get even better.
This closely matches the Path and Progress pillars of our 4 P's of Positive Leadership framework.
Simply put, if you're content knowing that over half your team may be struggling with low workplace wellbeing, low performance, or both this article is not for you.
I don't think you're here because you are content. I think you're here because you care about the people around and want them to feel energized to perform to their potential.
Here's a simple guide to get you started:
One on Ones: Social Support, Role Clarity, and Feedback do not manifest from thin air. They come from intention and consistency. We build relationships, understanding, and communication over time. Routine One on Ones are a great way to get the clock moving. I recommend you sit down with every one who directly reports to you at least once a month for at least 30 minutes.
Coaching v. Directing: Especially in the frenetic, "urgent" times we often find ourselves in veterinary practice, it can be alluring to resort to a directive style of leadership. Sometimes that is necessary, but less often than we tend to think. Whenever possible, train yourself to take a coaching approach to team member "management". Ask lots of questions. Lean into curiosity and seek understanding. Explore various options and approaches. Include them in decision making. Give voice whenever possible. These are the ingredients that bake the delicious cake of meaningful autonomy at work. (For a great primer on coaching as a manager, and some awesome sample questions to ask, check out this article)
Check In: Finally, get into the habit of checking in. Ultimately, the kind of high performance that accompanies a sense of vitality and thriving comes when we feel we have all the resources we need to meet the attainable demands before us. So ask about these two things - either in One on Ones or via routine surveys (e.g., once every 3-6 months) ask at least two important questions: (a) "What is ONE thing you don't currently have that would make your job just 10% easier?", and (b) "What is ONE thing that if changed or removed would make your job just 10% easier?"
See, it's not rocket science. But it IS science. :)
You got this. Now go help vitalize your team!