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How Do I Make My Veterinary Practice Psychologically Safe?

A psychologically safe veterinary practice

How can you adapt your leadership style to create an open, psychologically safe culture in your veterinary practice? You could do a lot worse than beginning with the following five tips:

Frame Work as a Learning Opportunity

This technique can be used to resist the dogmatic ‘success versus failure’ approach. If a veterinarian makes a misdiagnosis, frame this as an opportunity for them to learn rather than straight failure. This has the added benefit of helping them to consider where they went wrong in a calm way, rather than hastily suppressing their mistake to the depths of their subconscious. This means that the same mistakes aren’t likely to happen again.

Furthermore, by considering the mistake as a learning opportunity, you may even learn something new. You might learn, for example, that the vet misdiagnosed because they were rushing to meet their 10 minute consultation time limit. Perhaps the issue is more systemic than individual? Maybe you could change the consultation length?

Emphasise Collaboration

Hold regular team meetings where problems and worries are shared. As humans, we are natural problem solvers and love to share our experiences. By sharing and contributing to tasks in a collaborative manner, mistakes can be avoided or nipped in the bud before they become a wider issue.

Acknowledge Your Own Fallibility (Be Vulnerable!)

For a practice owner, this may seem like a big ask, and it is important to get the balance right between strength and weakness. Of course, it is important that a team respects its leader, but it’s a mistake to think that sharing when you get it wrong is a bad move.. This is not about self denigration but acknowledging that you too are human and are constantly learning yourself. 

Most importantly, it’s about showing how you are willing to own any errors or shortcomings and make things better in the future. 

Part of being fallible is not having to be right all the time. So another good opportunity to do less telling and more involving is to share with your staff any new ideas you have for the business, ask their opinions on new and existing protocols. If you are open to sharing and gaining group input, you might be surprised about the diversity, and value  of the answers you receive, plus as the team’s trust in this relationship grows, you may also be surprised when they call you out on your genuinely bad ideas! (We all have them!) Just one of the reasons why numerous studies show collaborative decision making leads to better results.

Be Curious

This is a big one. If you ask your workforce questions, this creates a necessity for their voices to be heard. If something goes wrong, don’t react with frustration or anger but foster curiosity: ‘what happened?’ ‘what can we do so this doesn’t happen again?’ Remember, progress can never happen with ‘closed-off’ and negative reactions. Progress is a constant dialogue between you and your staff, so ensure that it is open and responsive (not reactive).

Combine Psychological Safety with Accountability and Motivation

Many leaders worry that a psychologically safe workplace stifles any sense of accountability or motivation. This is not the case. Gone are the days of ‘each man for himself’, where success was purely target driven and team members competed against one another. Today’s workforce are looking for a more inclusive, collaborative approach. This can be achieved through creating an open workplace culture, where ideas are shared and problem solving is a team activity.

Accountability is not the same as blame. In fact, if you encourage people to share their ideas and speak up, this is automatically helping them to take ownership. Naturally, once an idea is shared, the individual will be committed to making it work with the help and support of the team.

Furthermore, as a leader you can foster motivation alongside creating an open culture. Motivation can come from setting clear objectives, organising structured training , scheduling review meetings, and giving feedback regularly. These form the skeleton of great leadership and will keep your staff motivated and striving towards the same goals. However, the safe workplace is what gets the blood pumping, helping the body of the business to thrive and grow.

When things get off track, you are entitled to have conversations about this and how to get back on track. Conflict is not the enemy, inadvertently (or openly) hostile communications are.

By executing the ideas in this article you will  help to create the sense of  psychological safety in the workplace, which will in turn pay dividends with a more engaged team.

“Psychological safety offers curiosity and methodical solutions”

To summarise: firstly, a psychologically safe practice does not harbour humiliation or punishment for mistakes, but curiosity and methodical solutions. Secondly, the ideas expressed above are only becoming more important to a veterinary workforce that is increasingly millennial. 

Want to learn more about veterinary leadership? Register for Dr. Dave's free veterinary leadership webinar, and learn how to avoid staff drama in your practice.

A call to action to a free veterinary leadership webinar


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