How to drive change successfully in veterinary practice

VettedVetted September 2020
Volume 115
Issue 9

For most businesses, implementing change is fraught with challenges. That’s why it is crucial for veterinary practice leaders to be able to answer the staff question, “What’s in it for me?”

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Have you ever tried to create change in your veterinary practice only to have your team become negative and resist your efforts? Even small changes in an organization can cause resistance among employees, largely because change brings uncertainty.

People typically don’t like change unless it brings something great for them or their job. Implementing change can go well, but it can also lead to decreased staff morale or even a walkout. Nancy Rothbard, PhD, chair of the Management Department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, famously said, “The sinkhole of change is communication and motivation. It’s where change projects go to die.”

The trouble with change

We have come to realize that employees are the reason why companies run smoothly and produce quality service. And to stay competitive, businesses must be growing and changing continually. In veterinary practice, communication and culture are crucial to success. If your team is lacking in communication skills and your culture is not ideal, then implementing change is not going to be easy — even if it ultimately will bring something great to the team.

Sean Dixon, organizational development doctoral candidate at Colorado Technical University and founder of LifeElevated Consulting, tells dvm360 that one of the most important questions for leaders to answer for their employees during times of change is this: “What’s in it for me?”

Consider this scenario. Two emergency hospitals faced a similar issue of missed charges. Both hospitals assigned technicians to enter charges at the end of their shift, but charges were getting missed due to miscommunication, unclear handwriting, and human error. This was costing the practices a substantial amount of money over time.

Each practice decided to use an orange highlighter to mark off treatments that had been charged for and paid, a visual cue intended to help keep everyone on track.

At one hospital, implementation of this seemingly small change was smooth. At the other, the employees resisted the change. The difference? The cooperating hospital‘s leadership answered the what’s in it for me question by initating a conversation with staff about how charges were being missed. In doing so, the manager learned that the staff didn’t mind the new process but also didn’t want more work at the end of the day. Explaining how the solution would ultimately make the process quicker and easier for staff helped the staff to accept the change more readily with better compliance.

Dixon says, “Employee resistance comes from fear. Any time you introduce anything new into the organization, people are going to be resistant because they don’t understand it.” In the scenario described, the employees’ concerns revolved around how much extra work this new protocol would add, how it would affect their daily work flow, and whether they would be reprimanded if this new tactic didn’t work.

Leaders who know and understand their employees can get staff buy-in and make a transition like highlighting charges more efficient and pleasant for everyone. Addressing their questions and concerns about the change will also help create a better bond between the employees and their leaders.

When change is coming from the top of an organization, it can be difficult for leaders to answer the what’s in it for me question accurately. Dixon recommends three tactics to bridge the gap.

Utilize middle managers

Shift leaders and technician managers are valuable assets for implementing change. Individuals in these positions typically know the staff well enough to understand who they are and what concerns they might have. This knowledge also means they will have a good idea of which staff members might resist the change.

Resisters or outliers, as Dixon refers to them, come in different forms: those who voice that they won’t accept the change and those who say they will but will sabotage discreetly.

Knowing who the outliers and resisters are creates the opportunity to address them directly. Managers can listen to their concerns, and then discuss with the employee how to make the change easier for everyone. Doing so also creates future communication opportunities and provides knowledge on how to implement change that everyone is okay with.

Develop clear and consistent communication

Because a lot is happening during times of change, having a communication plan is key to a smooth transition. “Communication needs to be factual, frequent, and can never be overinflated,” Dixon says. “You can never oversell results. This style of communication resonates with people and because of that, people believe you're telling the truth.”

Creating a plan for each department will help keep communication clear and direct. To stay on track and productive, leadership should be prepared from the outset with answers to questions that may arise from staff about the change:

  • What are the expectations for staff?
  • Why is this change important to the practice?
  • How will the staff be affected by this change?

Create a psychologically safe environment

Because change often ignites fear, it is important that people feel safe to voice their concerns, and to feel heard and supported with no risk of repercussions.

If your team does not come to you, go to them. There is an opportunity to grow and build trust when a staff member is resistant to change. Dixon suggests seeking more information directly from resisters, keeping in mind that the most important aspect of the conversation is letting the staff member explain their position. When they are done, ask as many questions as you can without projecting your personal views.

Another factor in creating a psychologically safe space for employees is to be clear on what safety means to them. “The English language is ambiguous, and everyone has a different definition of what safety means,” Dixon says. As leaders guide others into unknown territory, it is important to be as clear as possible. Define what “safety” means to each member of your team and come up with a common definition. When everyone is starting from the same place, everyone can progress at the same pace.

Guiding staff through a change, big or small, brings challenges. As a leader, it’s crucial to recognize that the journey is about the people who will get you to the destination. Providing ways to boost morale and communication will make the difference between holding on to the way it’s always been and embracing a new and better way of operating.

Kristina Guldbrand is a Colorado State University graduate with a degree in biology with a concentration in neuroanatomy and physiology. She worked as a certified veterinary technician for 12 years before becoming an account manager for Veterinary System Services. In her role as a manager and helping clinics with their staffing needs, she discovered her love of leadership and wellbeing. She has received training through the International Coaching Federation and provides workshops, leadership and wellbeing coaching, as well as teambuilding for practices


1. Iyer K. Key factors to increase chances of success in transformations. Medium. Published April 26, 2020. Accessed July 28, 2020.

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