Ask Emily: Why is my team afraid of me?

November 1, 2019
Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP

Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, is regional director of operations at the Family Vet Group, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Shiver resides in Florida.

If your veterinary team members panic when a boss asks to discuss something, look in the mirror: Youve been conditioned them to fear those conversations. Heres how to fix it so you have more productive, more empowering, less frightening conversations that help grow your team, not scare your team.


Javier brosch/stock.adobe.comOur team at and Firstline magazine asked practice manager Emily Shiver (a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager and a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional) to answer your questions about life in practice for managers, technicians, assistants, client service receptionists and more. Got a question for her? Email us at

Q: A large source of anxiety for our veterinary hospital staff comes when a superior tells someone, “Can I talk with you for a minute?” How can we decrease the spike in anxiety from this phrase so our team doesn't have a mental and/or emotional meltdown every time we need to discuss something?

A: Your team is conditioned-meaning, their response to, “Can I talk with you for a minute?” is based on their past experiences. If managers at your practice fly off the handle over the littlest infraction or constantly speak in a condescending tone, it's no wonder the team has anxiety! As a manager, there isn't a need to raise your voice or use a condescending tone or any words that do anything except help your team grow. A few short years ago, this was pretty normal in my practice too, and I felt the same way when my superiors asked to speak to me. I committed to changing the culture of our practice and taking all the anxiety out of these conversations. In fact, one of our core values now is, “We have the conversation.” 

Below are the top three reasons I say, “I need to talk to you for a minute” to my team members:

Discipline. This is more than, “You're in trouble. Don't do that again.” When a team member makes an error, it may be accidental or intentional. Take the time to have the conversation. Exercise good emotional intelligence on your end-no yelling, no condescending tones, no using the word “you.” Speaking to someone when you're frustrated can be unproductive, but with some practice, you can learn to make these successful conversations. I keep a log of all of these interactions, so we can refer back to them if needed. Of course, if there's no improvement, that's a different conversation I need to have.

Growth. Every team member in my practice is now used to sitting down periodically and having an in-depth conversation about what they want out of their lives and most importantly their careers. I conduct 360-degree evaluations yearly where the entire team gives feedback. These periodic check-ins are done randomly throughout the year, and I shoot for a minimum of twice outside of the yearly 360-degree evaluation. These conversations are welcomed by my team, because they happen so frequently and always end with solid plans for growth. I recommend that these are one-on-one and that you're not distracted when you conduct them (go off-site, if necessary).

Victories. A lot of “talks” only happen when there's something that needs to be improved or disciplinary action needs to be taken. It's vital to pull team members aside sometimes for a quick sit-down to go over victories and the progress they've made, big or small. It encourages them and helps them keep going down the correct path. This can literally be a 30-second, “I've noticed how hard you've been working on your project. It's going great!”

One of my favorite quotes that I use on a daily basis is, “It's OK to skin your knees.” It's important that your team members can make mistakes, navigate a tough situation or grow in their decision-making and know that they'll be supported, not screamed at. We all started somewhere, and we've all “skinned our knees” on the job (sometimes literally). Think of those who helped you along the way and how meaningful that help was. The team will work so much harder for you if they're not terrified to make a misstep. If you had the opposite experience and were constantly screamed at, think of how that made you feel, and don't pass that on to your own team today!

Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, is practice manager at Cleveland Heights Animal Hospital in Lakeland, Florida.