How Equine Veterinarians Can Conquer Incivility in the Workplace 

Poor professional relationships and a lack of respect can impair performance and lead to burnout. Dr. Phil Richmond explains how to build a more civil work environment.
Equine veterinarians at a table creating a culture of civility and conquering incivility.
Veterinary clinics can create a more civil workplace by showing staff they matter, they’re valued, and they add value to the practice. | Getty Images

Approximately 98% of workers experience incivility (characterized by acts or comments that reveal a lack of respect for others) in the workplace, according to Christine Porath, PhD, author and professor at Georgetown University. Why is this important? Because one of the factors contributing to burnout—a state of exhaustion prevalent among equine veterinarians—is poor workplace relationships. 

Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPHSA, CPPC, CCFP, the founder and CEO of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants LLC, presented on this topic at the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference. He advocates and consults for positive culture and individual, team, and organizational psychological health, safety, and well-being in veterinary workplaces. 

Richmond began by describing a recent study where researchers placed three individuals in functional MRI machines and had them play electronic “catch” together. In the middle of the game, they stopped throwing the ball to one person, isolating them. When this happened, the same parts of the brain that light up on fMRI for physical pain lit up in that person.  

“Incivility at work actually creates situations where we are geared to feel pain,” Richmond explained. He then discussed incivility in veterinary practices and how to build a more civil work environment. 

What Is Incivility? 

The spectrum of uncivil behavior is extremely broad, but you’ll likely recognize many of the obvious as well as more subtle examples of it that attorney and educator Sejal Thakkar composed here: 

  • Silent treatment. 
  • Talking behind someone’s back. 
  • Making humiliating remarks. 
  • Making accusations. 
  • Public chastising. 
  • Emotional tirades. 
  • Racial epithets. 
  • Bullying. 
  • Giving dirty looks. 
  • Not listening. 
  • Ignoring someone. 
  • Having an arrogant tone.  
  • Invading personal space. 
  • Shutting someone out of the team. 
  • Interrupting. 
  • Spreading rumors. 
  • Taking advantage of others. 
  • Talking down to others. 
  • Failing to acknowledge others. 
  • Nonverbal belittling. 

These are the behaviors veterinarians and support staff can watch for and try to change. 

The Consequences of Workplace Incivility  

When Porath et al. surveyed workers—in a variety of industries—about the effects of incivility at work, they reported alarming results: 

  • 80% lost work time worrying about incivility. 
  • 78% felt their commitment declined. 
  • 66% felt their performance declined. 
  • 63% lost work time avoiding an offender. 
  • 48% decreased their work effort. 
  • 47% decreased time spent at work. 
  • 38% decreased their quality of work. 
  • 25% claim they took their anger out on others. 
  • 12% decided to leave their job. 

Richmond cited one quote from the study authors, in particular: “Rude comments significantly impacted individuals’ cognitive (diagnostic) performance and procedural skills and team functioning.” 

“So, the way we act toward one another in the hospital affects patient care,” he said. “The way our brains work, when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered our cognitive ability goes down by 40%. We’re in fight or flight mode.” 

On the plus side, the study results showed simply increasing courteous and thoughtful interactions in the workplace can reduce team burnout. 

As veterinary professionals, “we experience things our brain and body process as threats multiple times a day,” Richmond explained. (For example, Mrs. Smith is on the phone, and she’s upset you haven’t called her back.) “That ends up being a sympathetic nervous system response. When we’re hit with that hundreds of times a day, that’s part of why we feel exhausted.” 

Tools for Building a Culture of Civility 

Researcher and author Zach Mercurio, PhD, has studied and spoken on the impact of what he calls mattering. Richmond said veterinary clinics can create a more civil workplace by showing staff they matter, they’re valued, and they add value to the practice. According to Mercurio, you can show colleagues they matter by: 

  • Knowing their full name. 
  • Asking about their life. 
  • Knowing their struggles. 
  • Remembering and checking in on them.   

Show they add value by: 

  • Telling them how they make a difference. 
  • Affirming their unique strengths. 
  • Asking for their opinion. 
  • Giving them responsibility. 
  • Showing you rely on them. 

“Know how important just doing this is for your team,” said Richmond. 

Another concept he described is that of active and constructive responding. He explained that there are four ways we can respond to someone giving us good news: 

  • Active destructive: raining on the parade, letting air out of the balloon. 
  • Passive destructive: negative, lack of interest, ignoring. 
  • Passive constructive: low energy, delayed response. 
  • Active constructive: enthusiastic support, genuine authentic interest, follow-up questions. 

Active constructive is, of course, the most effective. “We both feel better after this response,” said Richmond. “It’s one of the best tools we can use to show team members they matter in short about of time.” 

Lastly, he gave veterinarians an exercise they can do with their teams to improve civility in the clinic: 

  1. Have each person write down three short, memorable, actionable ways to improve civility. E.g., pocket your phone during discussions. 
  1. Group similar rules together. 
  1. Vote on which 3-5 to implement immediately at the practice. 

Take-Home Message 

“The consequences of incivility are far-reaching, significantly impairing professional and team performance,” said Richmond. 

Fortunately, we’ve got tools to assess civility in ourselves and our workplaces and ways to institute change. 

“The journey to a more civil, respectful, and productive workplace begins with every individual’s commitment to respect and civility,” he said. 

Brought to you by CareCredit. 

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