Reprogramming team culture toward equity, dignity, and empowerment

Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP, CCFP, shares how employee retention requires more than “golden handcuffs.” It takes a culture of mattering, empowerment, equity, and dignity.

By Tony McReynolds

AAHA’s “Stay, Please” research found that the No. 1 reason people in vet med leave their jobs is a lack of fair compensation. But when it comes to why happy employees stick around, money doesn’t even break the top three factors.  

What matters more to the people who love their jobs? Teamwork, meaningful work that feels appreciated, and the chance to practice modern medicine in the service of their patients.  

These findings were no surprise to Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP, CCFP, co-founder and lead consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting and author of Lead to Thrive: The Science of Crafting a Positive Veterinary Culture. 

“One of the things that I really appreciated about the AAHA Retention Study is that they looked at two sides of the retention coin: The things that keep people from leaving and then the things that make people want to stay,” Vaisman said, “And those are often different.”  

Removing the golden handcuffs 

You can likely improve the retention of your employees by raising their salaries, Vaisman said, but you’ll never pay people enough to force them to love their jobs. It’s the idea of “golden handcuffs”—paying employees so much that they can’t imagine leaving.  

“Our retention is probably going to improve because of these golden handcuffs,” he said. “But I’ve got to be honest with you: I don’t necessarily want a disengaged team, an unhappy team that doesn’t want to leave just because they can’t make that much money elsewhere.”  

It’s not enough to just keep people on the payroll. Achieving true retention requires creating an environment where people bring their full selves to work. When they join around the common mission and purpose of the practice, these teams deliver maximum performance because they’re getting something above and beyond “just the paycheck,” Vaisman said.  

But there’s no denying that fair compensation is still an issue that needs to be addressed. Starting off with a living wage should be “a bare minimum,” he said, because people deserve to be fairly compensated in return for the value they deliver to an organization.  

“It drives me insane that, in 2024, we still have veterinary technicians who have a professional degree, professional accreditation, and a license to do the work that they do, and they still have to hold down two or three jobs to make a living,” he said. “That’s appalling, and we need to fix that.”  

A meaningful work environment—not a family 

How do we create workplaces that make people feel important and valuable? How do we keep teams challenged in meaningful ways, to achieve goals that help them grow and develop in ways that matter to them? 

First and foremost, we have to create a sense of community at work,” Vaisman said, otherwise you will likely have a culture of “disengaged clock watchers.”  

But, he emphasized, this does not mean that your coworkers are your family. 

“I don’t think that a family approach is the right way to go with workplaces,” he said. “First of all, not every family is healthy and functional. Second of all, you can’t quit your family. You don’t fire your siblings, right? They’re two totally different environments.”  

So, what’s the difference between a family and a community?  

“In a place where there’s a sense of community, there is a genuine belief that the people here care about me personally and they care about my professional success,” he said. “When we have environments where there is that sense of community, that mutual caring, team performance improves.”  

Equity, dignity, and “mattering” 

Another aspect of a high-functioning community is a sense of equity and personal dignity, which means “creating a space of mattering” where team members feel empowered to use their voices in the workplace. “We have to create a space where people can feel seen and heard,” Vaisman said, “where they feel that what they have to offer is valuable and worthwhile.”  

That doesn’t mean that the workplace must be “fully democratic” where it’s “one person, one vote,” he said. “It does not mean that everybody just gets to decide things or dictate things. It simply means that they get to be heard.”  

This freedom to speak up improves team dynamics and performance, according to research into psychological safety. “Teams that have voice—and have that voice acted upon—do better in almost every metric,” he said. 

“This is basic human psychology,” he said. “When we are in environments where we feel like we matter to others, they start to matter to us, and we uplift each other. That’s what community is built on.”   

But how will this team know when it’s successful? That comes down to good old-fashioned goals. 

“We have to understand what’s important to people and find ways to match that to what’s important to us as an organization, and then help people achieve those goals in ways that matter to them and to us,” he said. “That sense of alignment in goal achievement is a really valuable way to bring teams together.”  

Categorizing and othering 

As our human brains have evolved over millennia, we’ve developed this feature that has helped us survive and thrive as a species, Vaisman said. “We’re really good at categorizing.”  

He adds that this ability to categorize creates “a whole bunch of mental space to do complex things,” including identifying and responding to threats, such as instinctively getting out of the way of an oncoming car. You don’t have to logically think about the risk because your brain has accurately categorized the impending danger. “That’s the categorization feature of the brain,” he said. 

Where this can get troublesome is when we categorize on an interpersonal level.  

Our brains tend to default to seeing “otherness” as a threat. Even though we all work at the same veterinary practice, we still might see each other as an “other”—unless there is a conscious effort on all our parts to find common ground. 

If you want to counteract this tendency toward othering, you have to “find ways to help employees see each other as friends. Find commonalities,” he said. “There’s all sorts of activities and games that you can do, team-building kinds of things, right?” 

And, yes, that might sometimes include a pizza party. 

If a pizza party is a feature of a highly connected, community-driven, positive work environment, a pizza party will always work,” Vaisman said. “If a pizza party is a Band-Aid to an unhealthy, unappreciative, disconnected, noncommunity workplace, it’s going to feel like a weapon. It’s going to feel like you don’t really care about my wellbeing. You’re just throwing pizza at the fact that you made me work 15 hours today for the third day in a row.” 

Overcoming the negativity bias 

As humans, our brains aren’t just wired to categorize, but also to skew toward negativity—unless we take active measures to short-circuit that programming, Vaisman said. 

“There’s some really interesting research that suggests that in human systems we tend to keep a sort of subconscious ledger about the interactions we have with others. And that ledger requires an abundance of positive interactions, because there are going to be negative interactions, too. And negative interactions tend to stick with us more than positive ones,” he said. 

We’ve evolved what’s called the negativity bias 

“Negative things are stickier. So that means that to wash off the stickiness of a negative experience, we have to have multiple positive ones.”  

Hence the bad reputation of pizza parties. “Because if we have day after day of horrible experiences in the workplace and then the manager comes in and buys us pizza, that one nice thing does not account or make up for the 10 horrible things that happened before.” 

To overcome our inherent negativity bias, “we’ve got to be making roughly three to five positive deposits for every negative withdrawal,” he said. “So if we’re expecting our team to endure five really hard things in a day, we better be giving them 15 to 25 positive deposits to counterbalance those five bad things.” 

But that doesn’t mean 15 pizza parties, he clarified. “It means 15 recognitions like, ‘It really means a lot to me that you [did XYZ]. You took my time seriously and you really care about this stuff.’”   

It all comes down to showing others how much they matter to us and “finding moments of caring, high-quality connection.”  

If we’re consistently making these small “micro-deposits,” when we later make the big deposits—like the pizza party, or the off-site event for the team—they look like legitimate, authentic, genuine deposits that employees will buy into and appreciate. 

What’s your percentage today? 

Knowing how to acknowledge each other, and when, requires transparency about how we’re really feeling. 

Vaisman recalled a post-pandemic experience he had at a hospital where “there was kind of a heavy feeling of melancholy hanging over the staff.” They implemented a daily check-in during their regular 10-minute morning huddle where they talked about what was coming up that day. 

And during this check-in, they did a super simple percentage check. They went around the room and asked everybody who was working, “On a scale of zero to 100, what’s your percentage today?”  

Some people would say, “I’m at 40%.” Some people would say, “I’m at 80%.” And no explanations or details were required. Just, “What do you have to bring to the table today?” 

They noticed that it accomplished a couple things, Vaisman said. First, it created a sense of awareness.  

“You know, so many times in veterinary practices, somebody comes in and for whatever reason, they’re not carrying their weight that day. And the team notices. And in lot of cases, the team is already feeling overwhelmed. Maybe they’re understaffed. And now here’s someone coming in and not carrying their weight. And what happens? Nobody talks to that person. Instead, they complain about them behind their back,” he said. 

But with the percentage checks, everybody knows that a particular person is having a 30% day, which creates a little bit of empathy and understanding.   

Then they noticed that people started helping each other. The people who were at 90% on a certain day might give a little help to someone at 40% by covering a task, offering a break, or simply checking in. 

They started to see that people in the morning who reported that they were at 40%, would sometimes come to their manager in the afternoon and be say, “I know I said I was at 40% and everybody’s being really being nice to me today and helping me out, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m feeling more like 70% this afternoon. Is there anything I can do now to help you?”  

Vaisman said if the percentage check feels too contrived or inauthentic, then your team can come up with some other way. “But do something that operationalizes making these micro interpersonal deposits,” he said. “That’s really critical.” 

It’s not enough as leaders to tell everyone to “be nice to each other.”   

“Nobody’s going to argue with that. But how does that look day-to-day?” Vaisman said. “You’ve got to find a way to operationalize it.” 



This article is part of our Stay, Please series, which focuses on providing resources (as identified in our Stay, Please retention study) to retain the 30% of all veterinary professionals considering leaving their clinical practice. Here at AAHA, we believe you were made for this work, and we’re committed to making clinical practice a sustainable career choice for every member of the team.  

Tony McReynolds is a temporarily petless freelance writer who lives near a dog park in Lafayette, Colorado. He dreams of one day owning a Newfie who isn’t afraid of water (which the last one was, and seriously, how is that even possible?).        

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors. 



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