Why people stay: Hiring (and keeping) a great team

A sense of belonging and teamwork is one of the top factors that keeps employees in their jobs, according to AAHA’s “Stay, Please,” research. Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPPC, CRT, CCFP, talks about how to create the psychological safety needed to hire and develop a strong team.

By Tony McReynolds

Whether you’re a DVM, tech, CSR, or manager, people working in every role within veterinary practices say that working with a staff that functions as a team is one of the main reasons they’ll stay in their jobs, according to AAHA’s “Stay, Please” white paper. 

We talked to Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPPC, CRT, CCFP, founder of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants, about how to hire—and keep—a happy team. He shares some of the evidence behind psychological safety and vulnerability as the cornerstones of successful teams, as well as how to ask questions that identify new hires with emotional intelligence and cognitive empathy.  

He also enlightens us on the difference between “givers” in the workplace who know how to maintain healthy boundaries and others who might be called rock stars, but who are destined to burn out. Here are some highlights from our conversation.  

*This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Psychological safety: Beyond people-pleasing—the freedom to take risks 

Phil Richmond: When we talk about a strong team, one of the main aspects is a concept that’s called psychological safety. Psychological safety means that, in this team, in this workplace, I feel like I can step out of my comfort zone.   

 And so it’s not about being nice. It’s not necessarily about being concerned about people’s feelings. It’s about creating an environment where I believe that you’re going to give me the benefit of the doubt.   

That means I feel like I can take a risk. If I make a mistake, I feel like the team is going to back me up. That I’m not going to be raked over the coals. Without psychological safety, it’s very, very challenging to create a strong team.   

The evidence for psychological safety 

PR: Google did a survey to find out what makes teams most effective, most innovative. They were thinking that, potentially, it might be resources, or the level of education of the team members. But what they found is that, far and away, psychological safety had the biggest impact on team connection and how productive that team was. It wasn’t who was on the team that was important. It was how those team members work together. And that concept of psychological safety has been backed up in different industries and professions across the board.  

How we fail at work matters 

PR: We have to understand how we view failure in the workplace. If I have a fear that, if I make a mistake I’m going to get in trouble, or if I’m going to feel uncomfortable about bringing up an idea, then I’m not going to feel excited about coming to work.  

How do we create an environment that fosters that? How do we make people excited to come to work?  Understanding that . . . the things that I do well are noticed and leaned into by leadership, that I feel like people have my best interests at heart. That if I make a mistake, it’s not going to be held against me, and that I really feel like I have members of the team that I connect with. 

How psychological safety supports diverse teams and sparks innovation 

PR: . . . If there is that psychological safety and that trust that’s there, then if there’s someone with a diverging opinion or experience than what I have or what someone else has, I’m going to be open to listening to them. And if I’m wrong, then I’m open to saying, “Hey, this sounds like a better way,” or bringing those ideas together in a way that are most effective for the team. And so when we do that, that’s what’s shown to really spark innovation.   

That’s why Google did that study about psychological safety. The bottom line: when there’s a high level of psychological safety in the workplace, that‘s usually correlated with some of the things that we know are related to performance in terms of job demands, in terms of job autonomy, in terms of reward and recognition. If I’m an employee who feels psychologically safe, then I’m more likely to want to stay in my role.   

We also know that turning over employees has a huge financial impact on the practice. So if we can retain great employees, our ability to work together goes up, psychological safety goes up, innovation goes up. All these things go up over time.  

Hiring for emotional intelligence  

PR: Skills certainly can be taught, including many of the things that we know how to do as veterinary professionals, whether it be surgery, radiographic interpretation, or pulling blood. But the human aspect, the level of emotional intelligence (EQ), those factors are very important.  

 How well can I understand what someone else is going through. Can I put myself in their shoes? This concept of cognitive empathy is very important. We can certainly learn that, but it’s better if we have that as one of our natural strengths.  

Hiring questions to ask when seeking “cognitive empathy” 

PR: I always like this question: “Who do you think you impacted most in your previous positions?”   

 What’s interesting is when we look at how that question is answered—and it’s not an exact science—but if someone answers that they helped someone in a position that was under them in their old job, and that’s what had the most impact for them and what they were most proud of, those people will, generally speaking, have a higher level of EQ and cognitive empathy and desire for service, versus if they share that they did these things to help the CEO to improve.  

Givers, Matchers, and Takers in the workplace 

PR: . . . part of what makes us most effective and productive is the ability to set boundaries when we’re giving of ourselves. If we can set boundaries when we’re giving of ourselves, that means we can give of ourselves without detriment to our own performance.  

 This is based on the work of Adam Grant, PhD, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. In it, he classified people as either givers, matchers, or takers.  

He looked at medical school students and the ones that were at the top of their class—the highest performers—were givers when it came to helping their fellow classmates.   

What was interesting . . . is that the people that were at the bottom of the class were also givers.   

What was different was the manner in which they gave.  

So if they were people who could set boundaries—what Grant called “self-protective” givers—they could spot people that were takers. And they had a specific time that they gave of themselves to uplift the people around them. But they didn’t do it to the detriment of their own performance. And that’s one of those skills that we hope to find in our team members.  

Learning to set boundaries 

PR: A taker is someone who is an energy vampire. Often, they will come and try to get as much as they can out of you without the intention of giving that back. They’re just very, very selfish.  

This is why this is important: If I keep giving and giving of myself, I’m going to burn out. I’m not going to set boundaries and I’m going to burn out. 

 Sometimes we mistakenly think those kinds of givers are rock star employees. And they are. But the problem is they keep giving and giving—they’re always the ones that come in and pick up shift—but they can’t do it forever. At some point that catches up with them.  

Again, as leaders, what do we want? We want really powerful team members who are with us for a long time. So we want to give them the skills to be able to sustain that giving. So we teach them how to have boundaries around that.   

 And then what’s interesting is there’s another group of people who are matchers.  

Matchers are very transactional. You know, “You do this thing for me, and I’ll remember it and I’ll do this thing for you. But I’m always keeping score.” And that’s something that we definitely see in veterinary professionals.  

Replacing judgment with curiosity  

PR: One of the biggest obstacles I see most commonly is misinterpretation. Misunderstanding. For instance, say a client declines heartworm medication and shows no emotion around that. I might start getting angry at that client. I’ll start thinking in my head about the reason they declined it, and I start attaching motive to their refusal.  

That creates an emotion, and I don’t actually know why that client said no, but I’m assuming that they did it because they don’t trust my recommendations, or they don’t care about their pet to spend money on that. And if I think that, then I’m going to respond to that client as though that were real. And then that client is going to respond back to me negatively.  

So we need to be aware of why we have beliefs about why certain things happen and make sure that we’re not assuming things that may not be true and then acting on those assumptions.  

In the South, we have a saying: “Don’t hit your shin on a stool that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Meaning that if you have a neutral reason for saying or doing something but I attribute it to malice, then I’m going to respond badly to you and you’re going to pick up on that and then the relationship can spiral.  

A lot of times this is the crux of couples therapy: I’ve just misinterpreted things because I saw them through my own lived experience.  

It doesn’t necessarily sound as exciting as some of the other concepts. But I’ll say that if we can do that in an animal hospital or a workplace, if we can look at our communication and ask, “Am I sure about what I’m responding to? Am I sure that that’s why that person did that? And if I’m not sure, can I ask questions? Can I be curious and not judgmental?”   

A parting thought for veterinary leaders 

PR: I think it’s awesome that we’re doing this work, and we know just how impactful a lot of these psychosocial factors are: Reward recognition, making sure that we’re supporting our team members as leaders. That when it comes to managing change, that we’re involving our employees in that and having them understand why we’re doing it, not overloading them.  

I love, love veterinary medicine. I’m very, very, hopeful and excited for the future.   

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.

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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