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Chapter 7

What Exactly Is “Workplace Culture,” and Why Is Everybody Talking About It?

Edward W. Kanara, DVM, DABVP

THE VALUE OF A HEALTHY CULTURE

You may have noticed more discussion recently regarding “workplace culture,” from continuing education programs at major veterinary conferences to the national media. So why is everybody talking about it? The answer is pretty simple: a healthy, optimized culture, whether in a veterinary practice or a Fortune 500 company, is good for business and enhances employee satisfaction and morale.

It’s no surprise that companies recognized as employers of choice and for their outstanding customer service place a high priority on ensuring they have a culture that fits their business and employee needs. For example, Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Disney have internal employee groups that focus entirely on shaping and monitoring their company culture. According to the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, happy employees are 12% more productive, stay in their roles longer, and use fewer sick days. Ritz-Carlton even has an employee position entitled director of culture transformation.1

There is also a correlation between personal wellbeing and workplace culture. Think about the anxiety you have felt when you were going to a workplace you dreaded instead of one you enjoyed. We all need to feel purpose in our job and want to feel heard and respected. High-performing teams are more engaged and productive.

Virtually every member of the practice team chose his or her career because of a genuine passion for helping pets. It’s extremely difficult for those team members to separate who they are from what they do, so when they are immersed in an unhealthy culture, their wellbeing is particularly at risk.

SO, WHAT DO WE REALLY MEAN BY “WORKPLACE CULTURE”?

If you asked 10 different people (including experts) that question, you would likely receive 10 different answers. Often, we equate employee satisfaction or client-centric attitudes with culture. While these descriptors are important to a healthy culture, they are actually the outcome of a good culture. Culture has been described as the overall character and personality of an organization. It is exemplified by the sum of the values, traditions, behaviors, attitudes, and aspirations of an organization or business. The Disney Institute suggests there are four interconnected processes that define organizational culture: employee selection, training, care, and communication.2

For me, the most concise and accurate definition is that culture is what results from the diligent adherence to established and expected workplace behaviors determined to be essential for achieving the organization’s goals, as well as the avoidance of those behaviors that are deemed unacceptable. For a culture to thrive, there must also be a reward system in place for expected behaviors, along with appropriate consequences and accountability for unacceptable behavior.

While experts may differ on the precise definition of culture, everyone seems to know when they work in a healthy culture and when they work in a toxic culture.

CAN YOU DESIGN AND SHAPE AN ORGANIZATION’S CULTURE OR DOES IT JUST HAPPEN?

Yes and yes ... if an organization does not take the time and effort to determine its culture, a “rogue” culture will emerge whether we recognize it as such or not. Often, when we just let culture happen, it’s characterized by ambiguity, lack of consistency of job expectations, and frustration over what may be perceived as a lack of leadership from practice owners or managers.

The good news is there is a pathway of well-established processes that can be followed to assess the current practice culture, design and shape a practice’s aspirational culture, and then execute the specific steps necessary to implement a customized, optimal, healthy culture.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR DEVELOPING A HEALTHY PRACTICE CULTURE?

Since every business or organization already has an established culture, we are really talking about culture transformation. This may run the gamut from taking a toxic culture to a healthy one or incrementally improving an already good culture to make it a great one. Ultimately, the responsibility for driving culture transformation is that of the practice’s leadership team

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This starts as a top-down effort because practice leadership must see the value, have an appreciation for the effort required, and enthusiastically champion what’s in it for the entire practice team as well as what’s in it for patients and pet owners. But most importantly, accurately assessing the current culture and implementing an improved one requires that every stakeholder have a significant voice in helping shape the new culture. Without genuine buy-in from the entire team, successful culture transformation will not happen.

HOW CAN I GET STARTED TRANSFORMING MY PRACTICE’S CULTURE AND TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL?

You could start with something as simple as asking to put this topic on the next practice staff meeting agenda and having a team discussion regarding the potential value for transforming your practice’s culture. You might have every member of the practice team read this AAHA’s Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing and discuss the self-care activities and the correlation between personal wellbeing and workplace culture. Additionally, explore the AAHA website for more information on helping transform your culture. Your patients and clients will thank you!

RESOURCES

  • Coffman, Curt, and Kathie Sorensen. Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch. Denver: Liang Addison Press, 2013.
  • Connors, Roger, and Tom Smith. Change the Culture, Change the Game. New York: Portfolio, 2012.
  • Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture & Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

REFERENCES

  • Layden L. Ritz-Carlton Shares Excellence Tips. Naples Daily News; October 14, 2016.
  • Disney Institute. Employee Engagement. https://disneyinstitute.com/about/our-core-competencies/culture.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Edward W. Kanara has been a veterinary practice owner, has held various senior executive positions at Pfizer Animal Health, and currently is the managing member of the Kanara Consulting Group, LLC. He has a special interest and expertise in organizational culture transformation and has led or overseen culture change efforts in both small and large organizations, including a culture transformation initiative for a NCAA Division 1 athletic team. The principles and processes for culture change transcend the industry or organization involved. He is also a certified executive coach.

Take-Home Message: Having a healthy practice culture is essential to providing the best patient care possible and optimizing employee job satisfaction and wellbeing. There are specific processes and tools that can help your team put together the puzzle pieces of a healthy culture.

AAHA’s Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing
The Link Between Healthy Workplace Culture and Optimal Personal Wellbeing
  • Download PDF of Roundtable Discussion

Want to share with the entire team?

Pick up free copies of AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing and the roundtable discussion, The Link Between a Health Workplace Culture and Optimal Personal Wellbeing at these locations:

  • AAHA@VMX ( Rosen Centre Hotel)
  • Health & Wellbeing Center ( VMX Expo Hall)
  • AAHA booth ( VMX Expo Hall)
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