It’s a shift change. Or closing time. One of those moments fraught with tension and tough communication and fatigue. Perhaps you’ve lost a patient that day or a client just finished screaming at you because she didn’t like the cost of care or the outcome of a treatment. Tension flares to frustration. Then your coworker drops an emotional bomb. Maybe she’s yelling. Maybe she’s icing you out when youreally need to talk about the next treatments a pet needs. That’s when you might get an inkling your team is toxic. (Check "6 symptoms of a toxic team" to see if your team exhibits the signs.)
The truth is, if you’ve worked in veterinary practice for longer than a couple of years, at some point you’ve probably worked on a toxic team.
Ninety-two percent of team members say they’ve worked on a toxic team, according to the 2017 dvm360 Toxic Teams survey. That number probably isn’t surprising to you. And it won’t suprise you either that toxic teams hurt you—and the people you work with.
But what about your patients? How can you possibly offer the best care if you’re distracted or emotionally hijacked by the people you work with?
You can’t. And you know it.
Sixty-six percent of survey respondents say their toxic team affected the patient care they offered. But the knife to the gut: 34 percent acknowledged pets suffered because of a toxic team.
As members of the medical community, you’ve dedicated your lives—and possibly even sworn an oath to prevent and relieve animal suffering. And if you’re a part of a toxic team, you have an obligation to get rid of the toxicity.
Own your environment
Your first instinct might be to blame one person. Danielle Russ, LVT, BS, BA, AS, the hospital manager for the Center of Veterinary Expertise in Suffolk, Virginia, cautions against it. “You’ve got to expect your team to take accountability for the environment you work in,” she says. Managers should lead by example, offering team members the coaching and support so that each team member:
> wants and actively contributes to a good environment
> practices open and professional communication
> stays receptive to feedback
> is willing to educate teammates
> seeks to educate themselves
> always looks to improve
> finds ways to contribute.
Your goal: To attack problems with information and data and remove feelings. “Feelings are real and need to be acknowledged, but they can be irrational,” Russ says.
And this also means when you or a team member recognizes you’re losing control, you need to tap out or step off. Gently saying to a frustrated team member, in a kind tone of voice, “Here, let me take over for you,” may help defuse an inflammatory situation.
“When you’re toxic and feelings-based it hijacks your ability to think—which is why people don’t think for themselves and then treatments get missed and money isn’t given back right and numbers are transposed,” says Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member.
Assume good intentions
The back vs. front struggle is real. And Tasha McNerney, BS, CVT, VTS (anesthesia and analgesia), says a part of this problem exists because the teams don’t understand what the other is doing.
“There’s always going to be that day when the back is going super crazy with surgery and dentistry and a blocked cat coming in and the back is running around slammed and you look down the hallway and the people in the front are sitting around and talking. And that sets up, ‘Why am I running around when you’re sitting here having coffee?’” McNerney says. “But there have been times when I have two dentistries cancel so I don’t have as much anesthesia to do. And the front is running around crazy, and that can set up, ‘Why am I dealing with all of these crazy clients when you’re sitting here drinking coffee?’”
Your secret weapon: cross-training. McNerney helps train technicians to work front and back, to help everyone understand the challenges of all parts of the clinic.
“Everyone’s here because we love animals and want the best level of care,” McNerney says. “But working with negativity, you can get drawn into it and it becomes your new norm. And then it’s hard to focus on the best care for the pet.”
Don’t let feelings consume you
When you lead with heart but check your brain and systems at the door, you lose your focus on your values and shared goals.
“If you don’t have a vision for your clinic and for your team, everyone’s going to assume their own vision,” McNerney says.
Start with realistic expectations. A common pain point for many practices is starting with an unrealistic schedule. You’ve been there: a full day of surgeries with a near-impossible-to-achieve schedule—then the emergency comes in, obliterating any shot at success. Then you’re bumping appointments back, becoming unfocused and pushing your team, your clients, your patients and schedule to places you never planned to go.
“When you’re getting overbooked, technically you’re making more money, but anesthetic care goes down,” McNerney says. “When you know you’ve got to get another patient on the table in 30 minutes, you stop focusing on the care the animal in front of you is receiving.”
One solution: systems. When you manage based on realistic and agreed-upon systems, you put aside feelings and agree on the facts. This means stepping up and acknowledging, with the facts, when systems are broken or when your team is working outside the system.
McVey recommends connecting the change you’re requiring of people to a specific thrust or business initiative. You acknowledge the pain—Betsy isn’t communicating so at shift change I have no idea about the status of the patients in ICU and which still need treatments—to affect change in the systems and make intellectual, not emotional, decisions about how to improve the care you offer for the business you work in.
“The pain and talking about the pain is the entryway to talking about the solution,” McVey says. “The solution is emotional intelligence and the removal of the toxic environment and conflict resolution skills. And that is achieved through the building of a values-based business with goals and strategies and timelines and a recording of all of that.”