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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

What The House of Delegates Teaches Us About Effective Teams

I recently had the opportunity to present on the Practices of Purposeful Leadership with my friend and colleague, Zach Mercurio Ph.D., at the AVMA’s annual Veterinary Leadership Conference. As a bonus I got to attend several of the conference offerings including watching a live session of the House of Delegates.

Although AVMA is not a legislative body, as a major representation of the veterinary industry in the US, it possesses a robust and influential voice in veterinary advocacy. To provide its extensive membership the opportunity to be included in that voice the House of Delegates exists as representation of those members.

I got to see the House of Delegates working this past weekend and it occurred to me that these “legislative-style” bodies are a wonderful example of psychological safety in action.

All the research suggests psychological safety is a necessary ingredient for teams (in any setting) to maximize their meaningful potential. Yet, few teams and organizations build formal systems into their culture to enhance, maintain, and protect psychological safety.

The AVMA House of Delegates (HOD) has a system. And I watched it work seamlessly.

This past weekend, as part of their winter session, the HOD considered a change to their official policy on cat declaws. As you can imagine, the practice of declawing cats is controversial and can illicit strong emotional response across the spectrum. Those who are against it tend to only be matched in their passion by those who strongly believe protecting the right to provide it.

AVMA does not (and cannot) dictate medical practice. This is up to actual legislative or regulatory bodies such as Congress, state lawmakers, or state licensing boards.

However, when AVMA publishes a policy statement those bodies “making the rules” pay attention. So, the updated wording on such a policy is incredibly important to all stakeholders in the field.

In a psychologically ­unsafe environment productive discussion and decision making simply cannot occur when approaching such charged topics. Among the possible outcomes are these:

  • It isn’t discussed at all

  • It is discussed but the “loudest” voice (often those with the most power) take over

  • It is discussed behind closed doors leaving out important stakeholders

At the HOD it is discussed openly, honestly, and without fear of repercussion. Everyone had an opportunity to express their thoughts, some of them quite passionately. No one interrupted anyone. No one voice took over the conversation by way of power or time. Not once did I see or hear anyone being “punished” for their perspective or feedback. When it was over, a vote occurred, the decision was made, and everyone went about their business with professionalism and cordiality.

That is what psychological safety looks like. How did they do it?

They have a formal system of rules and procedures everyone understands and agreed to beforehand. These rules and procedures in particular dictate how, when, and for how long delegates are entitled to express themselves. They also protect against punishment for candor allowing members to be honest and direct in their expression. Finally, the rules and procedures are fiercely protected and upheld above and beyond any one issue or opinion.

The president resides over the session calling on anyone interested in expressing their view. When the floor is given to a delegate they have the undivided attention of the house and know they will not be interrupted unless they behave outside the agreed upon lines. So, they can feel safe and comfortable fully expressing their view.

Once everyone has had a chance to speak a vote is called. The results of the vote are final and everyone knows this. So, no matter what the results, life moves on.

How often in our veterinary teams do we discuss uncomfortable or emotional topics in a productive way?

More often than not the veterinary teams I encounter allow problems in the team to fester (better to avoid than confront) or, if they have a particularly bold (eg, loud and overbearing) team member the issues are discussed overtly with no concern for safety or productive solution.

So how do we become more like the House of Delegates? Here’s one approach:

  1. Create a Set of Rules: Build a communication charter that includes how difficult (eg, important) conversations will happen in your team or practice. Do your best to include important stakeholders in creating these rules and be sure to include rules for how you’ll review and revise how well the current rules are working.

  2. Tie It To “Why”: Don’t just set up the rules, have fruitful discussion around “WHY” these rules are necessary. What are you trying to accomplish in this new world of open, safe communication? What values might this serve? What goals will you achieve? Why is communication so important here?

  3. Routinely Uphold the Rules: Once the rules are in place, your entire team is fully aware of them, and expectations have been set, actually follow through on them consistently. Sometimes this is a big change in our culture and, in difficult times, it can be easy to fall back on old norms. Resist it. It is important – perhaps most important precisely when it is hardest – to intentionally practice these rules until they become habit. Eventually, habit becomes culture.

This all sounds so simple, right? It is! But simple isn’t always easy.

That said, easy work doesn’t often lead to fulfillment. The most fulfilled teams do the hard work of getting there. You can too.

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