Veterinarians: Tune up your emotional gears


Are you just painfully grinding through your days? It's time to put your clinical knowledge aside and start retooling your brain for a new kind of intelligence that can help-the emotional kind.

Imagine if you could vaccinate your practice against some of the most common and infectious small-business diseases: low morale, staff conflict, and dwindling profits. Would you do it? Of course you would!

Building a respectful, harmonious, and fun workplace is one of the best ways to generate greater employee satisfaction and, in turn, greater revenue. So how do you create that positive experience for clients and co-workers alike? The experts agree: Your success has less to do with your IQ and more to do with something called "EQ."


EQ, which stands for "emotional quotient," measures a person's ability to interact with others effectively and to handle challenges without being ruled by emotions.

Becoming an emotionally intelligent leader is more pressing than ever for two reasons. First, there's a trend in veterinary medicine toward consolidation and collaboration. This means fewer one-doctor practices on the horizon and more practices banding together to form minicorporations of 12 to 15 practices. And to be successful, veterinarians and team members will need to communicate and collaborate at a higher level with more people than ever before.

Second, as employee wages and client expenditures increase, you'll draw a different kind of employee and a different kind of client to your practice. And both of these groups will expect a higher level of communication.

If you're questioning whether you really need to transform into a high-EQ professional, consider your current comfort level: Are you burned out and sick of the conflict in your practice? Maybe the economy has taken a bite out of profits and you need to build a service-focused team to meet growing client demands. Do you wonder how to unify your team to take your business to the next level? If so, consider this path to building a safe and respectful practice environment.


Leaders who are unskilled in emotional intelligence can brew toxic environments. In these circumstances, employees are untrusting, feel off-balance, and find it hard to focus on their work. They become hijacked by others' dysfunctions and lose their focus on client and patient care. You might notice a you-vs.-me mentality instead of a collaborative problem-solving approach. A team living in this chaos can't function as a complex operating system because individuals aren't working together effectively.

Toxicity is draining on the mind and soul, and it saps the joy right out of your practice. Your work is supposed to be about protecting animals and wowing clients. But if the team's focus is diverted by hurt feelings and frustration, it's impossible to achieve your highest level of service.

Veterinarians with low EQs often respond to difficult situations in one of two ways. They may act out their emotions—such as anger—either subtly or loudly. This will cause the entire team to clamp up and emotionally shut down and send individuals into an emotional spiral. Or doctors may keep everything bottled up, get frustrated, and decide that if they want something done, they must do it themselves. These owners don't use team members to the fullest extent. In essence, many veterinarians are stymied when they interact with others, and then the practice's systems break down.

I often see what I call "bottleneck" at the top. Because the owner is unable to communicate with staff members, they never build real relationships at work. As a result, everything has to go through the owner to be approved, and the clinic winds up a dictatorship rather than a team effort.

Many owners are caught in a Catch-22 because they lack emotional intelligence. They trust staff members enough to share their concerns, but they don't trust them enough to share their weaknesses and to work toward self-improvement. It doesn't help that many team members have their own flaws and emotional baggage.

Click here to determine your practice's emotional intelligence climate.


As part of my doctoral degree research, I'm working to uncover why some people in veterinary practices suffer from low self-esteem. So far I've interviewed more than 100 team members who have been in the profession longer than five years, and many have histories that include traumatic events, including abuse and abandonment by their employers and co-workers.

To back this up, national statistics show that about two out of every 10 people are aware that they come from abusive backgrounds. And if you look at women exclusively, the number climbs to four in 10.

This is important, because it reminds us that there may be hurt people working in our practices (click here to learn more). When you couple that with the dynamics of an insensitive, low-EQ doctor and a high-pressure, emotion-filled veterinary hospital, these team members are poised for anguish and conflict.

Take the next step

Do you notice any signs of a potentially toxic environment brewing in your practice? If so, it's time to take the next step.


Now that you know what an emotionally unintelligent practice looks like, let's take a look at a high-EQ practice. Veterinarians with high emotional intelligence understand the need for pauses in the day—for both reflection and communication. They analyze their interpersonal mistakes as rigorously as they analyze their medical mistakes. Allowing time for that reflection requires the team to generate enough profit to see fewer cases.

Why, you might ask, does the burden to change fall on the veterinarians' shoulders? Because doctors create the largest negative impact when they're not emotionally intelligent. If you're ready to start improving your own EQ, consider these steps:

1. Become more self-aware. This includes being aware of your emotions, viewing yourself accurately, and possessing self-confidence.

Low-EQ individuals typically subscribe to the idea that people never change, so just deal with it. That's part of the excuse.

Increasing emotional intelligence starts by increasing awareness of what makes you uncomfortable, things that trigger you, and circumstances that create conflict. This is called experiential learning. It's not linear, and you can't learn it in a book. You must live it and fail at it, then live through failing at it. And you get better each time, with each situation. It usually takes a two- to four-year journey to make a self-awareness turnaround. And it starts with learning to be aware of what you're feeling, not just what you're thinking.

One way to build self-awareness is to identify your triggers. Think about the situations that get you going. For example, when your technicians are squabbling, do you run around the corner because you can't manage conflict? When you can predict which situations trigger an undesirable or inappropriate response, you can begin to choose your behavior, instead of letting your instincts take over.

Of course, your personal journey never really ends. The goal is to get better and better so that those around you can experience you as a leader rather than an authority figure to be avoided.

2. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Leaders must be trustworthy, conscientious, and adaptable, and possess self-control. It's also important to be achievement-oriented and to take initiative.

It's difficult to change what you don't understand. So to create a personal development plan, you must first get a read on how others perceive you. Invite team members to offer you feedback at work. Just listen, then thank the person for offering feedback. You can take what you learn back to your coach or your spouse and process it later.

3. Develop an awareness of others. Why? Because it's an important first step toward becoming more service-oriented and more empathetic, which is key for improving your emotional intelligence.

The good news: Once you tune into what you're supposed to see and hear, the process becomes surprisingly intuitive. For example, perhaps your employee feedback indicates that you do, indeed, need to develop more empathy.

You can start by connecting team members' intellectual queries to what they're feeling. So if someone expresses a concern about the schedule, you might respond, "You must feel upset about how we handled the schedule this month," instead of "I'll handle the schedule better next time."

4. Continue to develop your social and communication skills. When you're operating at a high-EQ level, you will lead with vision, communicate effectively, and influence and develop others. You will serve as a catalyst for change, manage conflicts, build bonds, and collaborate with team members.

This might feel a bit like your own personal Mt. Everest, so it's important to take this journey one step at a time. A coach (either a professional leadership coach or even a trusted colleague) can help you set goals and keep you on the path. If you're open to this approach, consider recording or videotaping a few of your interactions so you can begin to recognize your communication style. Watching yourself interact with others might reveal clues in your tone of voice or body language that will help you identify the difference between what you're trying to communicate and how others perceive you.

As you move through your day, focus on how clients and team members respond to you and how your comments affect others. When you walk into a room, try to figure out what each person is feeling. Are they happy, sad, or angry? Are there other emotions you can't even name?

Finally, remember to watch for patterns in the feedback you receive from your team members. If you're consistently hearing messages, such as "you're overwhelming" or "you crowd the room," explore the source of your behavior. An intellectual understanding of where you learned the behavior and how you're rewarded for the behavior will help you identify and eliminate that trigger.

When you become emotionally intelligent, your practice can run with solid structure, collaboration, and predictable results. For every 1 percent increase in the team's emotional intelligence, there's typically a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in net profits. And you and your team members will enjoy peace of mind, a more joyful and invigorated work environment, and a stronger sense of community and purpose.

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