How to Beat Emotional Cancer


Negative attitudes among veterinary teams can be considered “emotional cancer” that undermines performance and reduces productivity. Here’s how to identify it — and beat it.

The concept of emotional cancer was written about by the great Steven Covey, the best-selling author of such life-altering books as “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

He calls these common negative traits in the workplace “metastasizing cancers” because they spread like wildfire within an organization, undermining relationships and performance. What are these cancers, and how can you excise them?

The Four Cancers

  • Criticism: Of course, constructive criticism can be good. But we are talking here about mean-spirited, negative criticism. Without the proper verbal filter, without the proper culture, it’s easy to be judgmental and criticize. “This client shouldn’t be allowed to have pets.” “I hate this song.” “Her make-up makes her look like a #$%&.” When we criticize something or someone, we judge them. Yet who are we to judge? To paraphrase Oprah Winfrey, criticism is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
  • Comparing: Comparing can easily lead to petty jealousy. “Her hours are better than mine.” “He makes 5 cents more per hour than I do.” “She’s always late and gets away with it.”
  • Complaining: Complaining seems to be a way of life at some practices: “Our clippers suck.” “She’s a slacker.” “I always have to clean up after her.” “It’s too hot.” “It’s too cold.” “Is it Friday yet?” “I hate my job.” Some practice owners and managers clearly tell staff that they are not interested in hearing about their problems or complaints, but that team members can have an open discussion if they have solutions to offer.
  • Competing: Competition can certainly be good, whether on a baseball field or in the marketplace. After all, competition is one of the founding principles of our free economy. However “competing for a sense of your personal worth” is not good, according to Covey. Studying and analyzing everything your competitors do in their clinics, on their Facebook pages and on their websites may be healthy to a certain degree, but not when it’s a daily obsession. The healthiest way to compete is against oneself.

These four negative habits are not unusual in a veterinary clinic — or any organization for that matter. Like cancer, bad habits often spread unchecked among staff members. With no “higher-up” intervention or guidance, these habits progressively invade minds, contaminate thoughts and pollute conversations.


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Slowly but surely, they become part of the culture. Hire a new recruit with “rising star” potential, and within weeks, he or she starts to criticize, compare, complain and compete. And the evil disease takes its toll.

So, now that we have a diagnosis, what is the treatment?

Four Treatments

If you feel that your staff or even you are a victim of these emotional cancers, here are a few solutions you can implement.

Introduce a New Normal

Once you become aware of how big a problem you have on your hands, take a deep breath, gather the troops and establish new rules. From now on, no more gossiping, no more negativity, no more criticism, no more comparing, no more complaining and no more competing will be accepted in your practice.

It takes some serious guts to say things like that, but it would be a good idea to do it before your practice reaches the point of terminal cancer — where every “organ” (or department) is full of metastatic cancer. So, prepare your speech and explain the new acceptable behaviors.

Talk the Talk

If your employee manual states that tardiness is unacceptable, yet you allow one employee to be late continually with no repercussion, you’re setting a bad precedent. If the employee manual specifies that piercings should be small and tasteful, then why does your (favorite?) receptionist have a giant nose ring?

Violations and exceptions, big or small, imply that rules can be broken. Once a small rule is broken with no consequences, then bigger boundaries are likely to be challenged. And it slowly goes from bad to worse. Once you are happy with your employee manual, set the expectations and enforce the rules. When a rule does get violated, follow the predefined disciplinary actions: verbal warning, written warning, termination. No exceptions.

Walk the Walk

If the owner of the practice or the hospital administrator cusses and complains all day, it will be very difficult to have a positive and polite staff. And if the owner or hospital manager claims that negativity is unacceptable, then he or she shouldn’t complain all day about petty things. In other words, lead by example.

Think Like a Surgeon

Surgery remains one of the primary weapons against cancer. So don’t procrastinate. Be bold and excise the cancer sooner rather than later. Interestingly, hardly anybody regrets firing an underperforming employee. In fact, most colleagues who have been in that difficult situation comment that they wish they had done it sooner. In other words, just do it!

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and

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