3 secrets to team retention

dvm360dvm360 March 2024
Volume 55
Issue 3
Pages: 46

Setting a purpose, clear expectations, and psychological safety measures can help meet the bottom line with employee retention

Nuthawut / stock.adobe.com

Nuthawut / stock.adobe.com

Supervisory style can have a profound impact on workplace culture, team member engagement, and retention. You might readily recall a supervisor or manager who, through their words and actions, fostered in you a sense of trust, mattering, and loyalty—or had the opposite effect. A critical factor in helping teams thrive is determining which specific supervisory behaviors have a positive influence in the workplace.

Recent research provides some answers. An American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association1 identified supervisory styles that influenced associate veterinarians’ likelihood to remain in their current positions. AVMA’s 2021 and 2022 census of veterinarians asked associate veterinarians to rate the frequency with which they experienced certain behaviors from their direct supervisor. Three behaviors were found to influence the associates’ intent to remain at their organization for the next 5 years, independent of compensation, burnout level, years of work experience, hours worked, and other factors. These 3 behaviors are as follows:

  • Fostering a sense of purpose
  • Setting clear expectations
  • Facilitating psychological safety in the workplace


A sense of purpose comes when employees feel like their direct supervisor routinely shows them how they and their work matter. Employees believe that they are seen, valued, and needed, and that their work is meaningful. Beyond contributing to a greater likelihood of employees remaining at an organization, these beliefs can translate to higher job satisfaction, lower risk of burnout, greater productivity, and superior team well-being.2

In the study, associates were asked how often their supervisor routinely shows them how they and their work matter. The more often this was perceived as happening, the greater the associates’ intent to remain at an organization for the next 5 years. Those who believed their supervisor did this a great deal were almost 3 times as likely to indicate a desire to stay as those who felt their supervisor never did. Fostering a sense of purpose is easier than you might think. Consider the following behaviors:

  • Take the time to regularly check in with each team member.
  • Ask each team member what work they find meaningful and delegate accordingly when possible, commensurate with their capabilities, credentials, and applicable law.
  • If you do not already have one, create a vision statement3 for your practice with the help of your team, and link their performance goals to that vision.
  • Discuss with each team member their potential for growth and invest in their professional development.

Clear expectations

By taking deliberate action to provide team members with clear expectations, supervisors can help instill in them a sense of meaningful achievement. Giving them meaningful control over how to meet those expectations, as well the resources they need to succeed, can create a sense of empowerment among the team. These efforts often translate to greater work engagement, job satisfaction, team performance, and professional vitality.2

The AVMA’s study findings support this premise. When associates were asked how often their supervisor takes deliberate action to provide them with clear expectations and meaningful control over meeting those expectations, those who experienced these actions a great deal were 2.5 times more likely to intend to remain at their jobs as those who never experienced them.

What are some steps supervisors can take to achieve this? Setting clear expectations requires 2-way communication, as follows:

  • Be transparent about expectations for your team and the rationale behind those expectations.
  • Ask each team member for their ideas about what your expectations for them should be. Partner with them in the expectation-setting process.
  • Trust team members to meet your expectations, and let them know you are there to help them.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety can be thought of as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, such as speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns— or making mistakes. Someone who feels psychologically safe may be willing to challenge the status quo at a team meeting because they believe their perspective will be heard and considered, rather than spurned.1 Those who enjoy this feeling report higher job satisfaction and lower burnout, among other benefits.

The study’s results support this supposition. Associates were asked how often their supervisor holds their shortcomings against them. Those who perceived this as never happening were almost 2.5 times as likely to intend to remain as those who experienced it a great deal.

It is human nature to perceive mistakes as negative and problematic, rather than as opportunities for growth and learning.4 Contributing to psychological safety in the workplace requires self-awareness and reshaping the team’s response to risk taking and mistakes toward the latter. Supervisors can help by modeling supportive behaviors, such as the following:

  • Regularly measure your team’s psychological safety, for example, through anonymous surveys.5 Encourage discussion about safety and culture.
  • Establish a foundational rule in the workplace that mistakes are not to be shamed or hidden but are opportunities for sharing, growth, and learning for everyone.
  • When things go wrong, avoid asking “why” questions that seek to place blame. Replace them with “what” questions like “What can we learn from this outcome?” or “What can we do differently next time?”

The bottom line

The study’s findings support other evidence that we can improve team engagement and retention by fostering psychological safety and a sense of purpose for our team members and providing them with clear expectations. Although practice owners, directors, managers, and team supervisors can lead the way, everyone on the team has an important role. That is particularly true in ensuring psychological safety and building community in the workplace.

In addition to the tips offered here, an effective starting point for the whole team is to make use of the complimentary tools offered through Journey for Teams (journeyforteams.org), an AVMA-hosted program supported by partnerships with other industry organizations. These tools include 15-minute learning modules the team can explore together on topics that include psychological safety, microaggressions, and creating brave spaces in our workplaces. There is even a module devoted specifically to the art of retention.


  1. McKay CH, Vaisman JM. Psychological safety, purpose, path, and partnership reduce associate veterinarian desire to leave current employment. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2023;261(10):1518-1524. Doi:10.2460/JAVMA.23.03.0158
  2. Lamperski RJ. Work namaste: the importance of mattering at work, and how a leader can create an environment where employees feel they and their work matter. Master’s thesis. University of Pennsylvania; August 24, 2018. Accessed February 7, 2024. Https://core.Ac.Uk/download/pdf/219379095.Pdf
  3. What is the difference between mission, vision and values statements? Society for Human Resource Management. Accessed January 19, 2024. www.Shrm.Org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/ mission-vision-values-statements.Aspx
  4. Fear & creativity: Why psychological safety is crucial for success. Lean Learning Center. Accessed January 23, 2024. Https://leanlearningcenter.Com/blog/why-psychological-safety-is-crucial-for-creative-endeavors
  5. Brandt JC. Psychological safety 3-2-1 discussion guide. Journey for Teams. AccessedJanuary23,2024.https:// www.Journeyforteams.Org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/3-2-1-discussion-guide_topic-3_psychological-safety.Pdf
Related Videos
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.