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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

What You Can't See Hurting Veterinary Team Performance

Your brain is a powerful machine.

At any given moment it’s receiving over 10,000,000 pieces of data. Sights, sounds, smells, touch. It’s all flooding your mind.

That’s way too much information to focus your attention on. In fact, neuroscience tells us we can only attend to about 40-60 pieces of data at any time.

That’s right. Your conscious attention is only able to focus on about 0.0005% of the information coming in. So what happens to the rest?

The meaning-making machine in your unconscious brain is hard at work. 99.9995% of all the date hitting your brain is processed unconsciously and automatically. You can’t stop it and you can’t really control it.

And the only time you really notice is when the unconscious brain overtakes whatever you’re consciously paying attention to and screams, “Alert! Alert!” in your head.

You see, first and foremost, our brain evolved to keep us safe. If we survive, we pass our genes on and the species survives.

It’s like this – The Incredible Hulk shows up at your house, grabs you, puts headphones on your head and runs off to the local zoo. Before you know it he drops you into the tiger display right on top of their afternoon meal.

You didn’t notice, but he also hit play on his iPod so you’re listening to an audio book as you sit between several ravenous giant cats.

Question – later on, after being rescued, what do you think the chances are you’ll recall everything from the book playing in your ears during this crazy ordeal?

The chances are pretty much zero. Because your brain took over to help you survive.

When we’re in survival mode, we can’t learn, create, innovate, or collaborate. All we can do is flee, fight, scream, or freeze.

This is all about physical safety. There’s another form of safety the brain craves. It’s called psychological safety.

You see, the brain doesn’t really differentiate between hungry tigers and judgmental co-workers. From the brain’s perspective, both are a threat to our safety.

This is why teams need psychological safety too. We consistently find in teams lacking psychological safety, people withdraw, withhold, and focus on “survival”. Surviving the work day as unscathed, psychologically, as possible.

In teams that cultivate psychological safety – that is, make it safe to ask for help, admit shortcomings, make and learn from mistakes, contribute to growth and learning, challenge the status quo, and just be human – we find high levels of job satisfaction, performance and productivity, creativity and innovation, and significantly lower turnover.

If we want our teams to get things done, we don’t really need psychological safety.

But, if we want our teams to realize their maximum potential and be energized in the work they do, cultivating psychological safety is a must.

So how are we doing? That’s what I wanted to find out.

Safe or Not?

Surveys suggest less than half of all employees believe their team is psychologically safe. Almost 1/3 of employees say it is flat-out unsafe.

But that’s ALL workplaces. I’m interested in my community, veterinary medicine.

So, I set out to measure psychological safety in veterinary medicine. And since Positive Leadership is my jam, I wanted to look at this through that prism.

Psychological safety is a team phenomenon. Everyone on the team plays a role. Every interaction, behavior, and relationship is either enhancing or diminishing the perception of psychological safety on the team.

That said, the leader of the team has the most influence. Studies show if the leader is nurturing and modeling psychological safety in the team, the team is far more likely to feel psychologically safe. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Leaders who lead with fear get fearful teams.

I recently built a survey to measure psychological safety in the veterinary. Over 400 of you responded.

Of those, over 140 were in a leadership position.

What I found was fascinating – and a great opportunity for us.

Psychological Safety in Veterinary Medicine

The survey I built asked 6 questions related to psychological safety. Things like:

  1. It is safe to share my opinion in my team

  2. My opinion actually matters

I asked participants to rate their agreement with these statements on a scale of 1 – 5, where 1 means ‘strongly disagree’ and 5 means ‘strongly agree’. The survey was shared openly throughout a variety of veterinary-specific groups on Facebook.

Finally, I asked folks to identify their role. I wanted to get both average scores across the whole community and have the ability to parse out scores by role. More specifically, I was curious to see how leaders rated psychological safety in their teams compared to the teams they lead.

What I found was both interesting and unsurprising.

There’s a saying that goes something like this, “the higher we move in leadership, the less self-aware we become.”

This is not because we are flawed, bad people. In my opinion, it’s typically a result of two realities:

  1. What worked in developing and nurturing open, communicative relationships before works less well the more power and influence we gain. Simply put, people naturally become more cautious and less candid with those in power.

  2. As we gain responsibility, we tend to spend less energy on team culture and more energy on “getting shit done”.

The unfortunate result is this; leaders commonly believe things are better in their team than they actually are. And they have no clue they are wrong. Without knowledge and awareness, being wrong feels precisely the same as being right.

The below chart is the results of my survey.

Psychological Safety in Veterinary Teams - Survey Results

Notice the trend – for every question leaders gave a higher score than average and teams gave a lower score than average.

By the way, leaders included managers and owners. Teams included associate DVMs, technicians, CSRs, and a variety of other support staff.

Put another way, veterinary leaders tend to believe the psychological safety in their teams is significantly higher than what the teams are actually reporting.

That, my friends, is a gap of understanding.

Which is actually exciting! Because in every gap exists an opportunity – to learn, grown, and improve.

Veterinary teams are accomplishing amazing things these days. Y’all are superheroes! Seriously. And you’re doing it all at less than full potential.

If veterinary leaders can embrace this gap and work to close it…, imagine what we could all accomplish then. Together.

So, how do we close the gap?

Start by measuring it. We can’t effectively manage what we don’t measure. Find a way to honestly discover where you and your team are actually at today. If you want, Flourish can help (in fact having an outside party conduct a survey like this might provide more candid, and valuable, results).

Then work together to close any gaps and elevate the psychological safety.

That’s where the magic happens.

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