As the equine veterinary industry faces unprecedented rates of attrition and a historically low entrance rate of veterinarians into our field, one way to retain current employees is to improve workplace culture. The 2023 AVMA Economic State of the Profession Report stated that 40% of all veterinarians have recently considered leaving practice, and 32% of those cite work culture issues such as the required hours, work-life balance and overall practice culture as the reason.
A positive practice culture often follows the creation and leadership of an effective team. According to organizational social scientist Dr. Amy Edmondson, team effectiveness is driven by one major factor in the workplace—psychological safety. The presence of psychological safety within an organization improves levels of employee satisfaction and company performance. This benefits both practice owners and associates.
Psychological Safety in Equine Practice
Psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking1. In this type of environment, candor is allowed and expected, mistakes are forgiven, asking for help is not seen as a weakness, and questioning current norms can occur without fear.
The term psychological safety might sound soft. It is far from that. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says, “What you’re aiming for on a team is a commitment to high standards and the psychological safety to be candid with each other as you try to achieve them.” It does not mean that people need to be overly nice. It is not about decreasing the standards to which you hold your employees. In fact, once the practice has established team safety, the opposite is true. Instead of walking lightly around someone’s feelings, when there is an atmosphere of established psychological safety, team members can hold candid discussions more easily.
Performance Goals for Equine Practice Teams
Once the team has developed this level of safety, performance goals can increase for everyone. If the team is not meeting expectations, the environment of mutual respect and vulnerability allows for frank discussions about improving performance. Staff reports mistakes and failures sooner. This allows for earlier correction or intervention that can prevent a decrease in productivity and/or profitability.
A multi-year study of employees at Google clearly showed that teams with high psychological safety also had higher performance measures. Of all the attributes that helped explain performance, a team was never measured as “high performing” without psychological safety2. This outcome can be explained by the fact that interpersonal safety within a team allows for increased learning, collaboration and innovation. When psychological safety is not present, team members will not only be afraid to admit mistakes, but they will also hold back on offering ideas for innovation and improvement.
Leadership should champion efforts to create psychological safety in an organization. In the context of veterinary medicine, an important place to start involves the idea of Leadership Inclusiveness. Edmondson described three behavioral attributes of inclusive leaders: They are approachable and accessible; they proactively invite insight from employees; and they admit their fallibility. Practice owners and managers must be vulnerable enough to display these behaviors to create a team culture of psychological safety. Being consistently engaged with and continually looking for feedback from your employees is an easy place to start developing more team cohesion.
While the role of veterinarian denotes a certain leadership level, you might not always be the boss. If you wish to advance the level of psychological safety in your organization without support from the top, there are specific actions that you can take. Asking questions with good intentions and actively listening to other people’s ideas conveys respect. It reinforces the idea that all team members are valued. Being vulnerable shows that you are willing to take an interpersonal risk. This will demonstrate an effort to create psychological safety for others around you. Creating one small space of safety and excellence might be the best thing you can do.
Progress, Not Perfection
In the veterinary workplace—where stress is high—collaboration is key, and clinical outcomes are dependent on well-functioning teams. Psychological safety is crucial. If team members do not meet standards of safety and inclusion, leadership should take clear action against them to protect the collective environment. Team leaders must continually encourage and reinforce the goal of progress, not perfection. If leadership can stay open to new ideas and feedback, engaged and productive employees will create a more cohesive team. Feeling a sense of belonging in a successful team might help veterinarians stay in equine practice long-term.
- Edmondson, A.C. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350-383.
- Google re:Work. “Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness.” Available online at: https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/ (accessed April 1, 2023).