How to kick toxic practice cultures to the curb

February 27, 2021
Kelsey Gustafson, Associate Editor

Your veterinary team is integral to your practice’s success. Find out how to address negative behaviors and nurture a cohesive and positive workplace.

Veterinary teams are comprised of a robust mix of individuals who share a common goal: to save and heal their furry patients. But what happens when their personalities and ideas clash? According to Family Vet Group’s Florida-based regional director of operations Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, CVBL, things can get rather tempestuous. “In every practice, we have many different people that make up our team and each of those people have their own values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors,” she said. “Sometimes when you smush all of that together in a [animal] hospital, it can become quite turbulent.”

In her talk at the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference, Shiver identified common practice culture killers and offered guidance and solutions for nurturing a healthy and compassionate workspace.

It starts at the top

According to Shiver, if you’re experiencing an uptick in toxic behavior at your practice, the first place to look is management. “I always say it starts on top. So every single thing we in management positions do can affect our team. Whether we like it or not, that’s the truth,” she said.

So what causes this increase in negative behaviors? A few key contributors include a lack of structure (eg, policies, procedures, and scheduling discipline), no clear expectations (how your practice communicates with clients, each other, and job deadlines), no core values, and a lack of investment in your team.

If your practice is suffering from any (or all) of the above, consider doing the following:

  • Create/share core values, a mission, and a vision: These are the fundamental beliefs of your practice that highlight what will and won’t be tolerated. Shiver strongly recommends involving the entire team in this process.
  • Set and follow through with clear expectations: Everyone should know the consequences of toxic behaviors and managers should immediately address those who practice them.
  • Show that you care: Provide your team members with a platform to be heard, appreciated, and respected. If you take good care of your team, they will perform at their highest level, said Shiver.

Additionally, she recommends taking time daily to listen to each team member —either collectively or individually—to discuss what went well and didn’t go well that day.

Combating burnout and compassion fatigue

One of the most challenging hurdles within the profession is identifying and preventing burnout and compassion fatigue. The current shortage of veterinary staff has led to increased burnout and compassion fatigue, causing many skilled people to leave the industry. To help avoid this scenario, consider changing up responsibilities. For example, if one of your team members is displaying increasing signs of chronic stress, switch up their role from a technician to either a receptionist or client service representative role (CSR). “Even if the change is for half a day, it can change that mindset,” said Shiver.

When it comes to improving mental health among your team, proper scheduling goes a long way. Shiver recommends trying out 4/10 scheduling, which gives your team an extra day to unplug and reset. “Give regular check-ins [as well] and take the extra few minutes to see how you can help. Showing your appreciation and care can go a long way,” she said.

Having tough conversations

Practice managers tend to overlook toxic behavior, especially when it’s coming from a long-term team member. “When a technician of 15 years has their bad behavior overlooked, it brings me to the question: Who doesn’t like to have tough conversations?” Shiver said. As a manager, your job is to mediate complex situations and come up with solutions.

Here are some of Shiver’s strategies for approaching these challenging conversations at your clinic.

  • Teach your team how to have these tough conversations: When team members have disagreements, your job as the mediator is to create a space for them to talk it out with each other. Encourage both parties to provide constructive feedback.
  • Improve emotional intelligence: In the beginning, there might be a lot of tears and a lot of people feeling attacked at first, but this is normal when building emotional intelligence, says Shiver. “Let them know this isn’t personal,” she said, “and that a solution needs to be created.”
  • No more cliques: If you see team members competing with each other or breaking off into smaller groups, it’s your job to be the driving force and break them up. (Make sure you remain neutral. Don’t take sides.)

The bottom line

By improving your practice culture, you’ll not only observe a positive change in the attitudes and behaviors of your team but also in how your overall practice is run. Shiver leaves us with the following advice: “If your team comes to work every day and they are living in a positive practice culture and feel cared for and appreciated, they will take good care of your clients and stellar care of your patients. What that will do over time is create organic client growth."