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Building psychological safety

2020-8-6 GettyImages-1167849809 - Vaisman post - blog.jpg

Every veterinary team is currently experiencing a surge of stress and exhaustion. We’re juggling new and unusual routines that add to an already bursting to-do list. The entire veterinary community is stretching to meet a new normal and, as teams adjust, it’s important to ensure that managers and team members are creating a psychologically safe workplace to help everyone cope with these changes.

Psychological safety is when employees perceive it is safe to take interpersonal risks at work, such as offering constructive feedback, contrary opinions and ideas, experimenting with novel approaches, and generally bringing their full selves into their practices. Workplaces with high levels of psychological safety are more productive, creative, and profitable. And people who work in such places report higher levels of happiness and wellbeing at work and in their personal lives.

We also know conclusively that teams with psychological safety have a better ability to respond to challenges with creativity and innovation. If ever there was a time to start fostering this kind of workplace, it’s now. Clearly, there are myriad benefits to promoting psychologically safe work environments. The question is, how can this kind of environment be created?

Here are three tools that may help improve psychological safety in your practice.

  1. Embrace a learning mindset

Every one of us has made mistakes. Except my Great Dane, Lily. She’s perfect in every way. Just ask her.

Imagine you’ve just taken a shot of truth serum. Now ask yourself, “How many mistakes have I tried to hide from my peers or manager?” It’s common practice—we make an error and we quickly try to remedy it before someone notices, or hide it, or rationalize it away. In a psychologically safe workplace, mistakes aren’t hidden away in the darkest corners of the basement—they are displayed for everyone to inspect as closely as possible. Why? Because mistakes become opportunities to learn and grow.

In a safe workplace, the team communicates about the good and the bad, which allows a practice to innovate. The frontlines of veterinary medicine are changing so quickly during the COVID crisis, and psychological safety can ensure that teams have the openness they need to adapt and improve in real time.

Embrace curiosity in your workplace and find ways to view mistakes (yours and others’) as opportunities for everyone to learn. Behind every error is a better way to do things in the future—share it!

  1. Get comfortable with radical candor

How many conversations have you witnessed or, worse yet, been on the receiving end of, that began with the dreaded phrase, “I’m going to be brutally honest with you?” I bet that statement put you on edge, waiting for a harsh reproach rather than constructive feedback. When did honesty become synonymous with brutality?

In her book and TED Talk, entrepreneur and highly successful manager Kim Scott recommends a better way of bringing productive honesty back to the workplace—radical candor. While brutal honesty is accusatory, radical candor begins with curiosity. Where brutal honesty tends to be one-sided, radical candor is based on a desire to help and to foster growth.

Of course, a history of brutal honesty has made even radical candor a radically uncomfortable concept. But change has to start somewhere.

Get familiar with the concept of radical candor. Watch Scott’s TED talk or read her book, Radical Candor. Then sit down with your team and share your desire to bring radical candor to the workplace. Create a charter (either verbal or written) laying out the specifics. What will radical candor look like in your workplace? How and when it will be used? Then, start doing it! Yes, it will be incredibly uncomfortable at first. Make it a team effort and keep at it, and it will become part of your culture.

  1. Imbed the Losada Ratio into your workplace

Barbara Fredrickson has spent years studying emotion and its relation to wellbeing. Her research uncovered a Positivity Ratio—those of us who experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion tend to be significantly happier than those who do not. Fascinating research by Marical Losada and Emily Heaphy shows essentially the same ratio in the workplace leads to high performance in teams.

This is a tangible, evidence-based tool anyone can use at work. And I mean, anyone—owners, managers, doctors, nurses, executives, support staff. Everyone.

Imagine a veterinary hospital with four employees including a doctor, receptionist, and two technicians. Every day, each one of them notices something specific and relevant their coworkers do that positively impacts them and/or the workplace. Now, imagine they each share what they notice with the other person in a timely manner and with genuine appreciation. That’s three positive things every day. One small change can help a whole team be happier and achieve more.

What will you do to help your team feel safe to take interpersonal risks? These three little steps are a great starting point for a psychologically safe workplace. When put into practice, you and your team will be sharing more, collaborating more, achieving more, and generally enjoying work more, even as we all weather the current COVID storm.

Want to learn more about the concept of psychological safety and how to put it into practice with your team? Find out the secret sauce of leading an effective veterinary team at the 2020 Connexity conference! I’ll be sharing how to measure psychological safety in your hospital, how to set the stage for success, revealing my own radical candor charter, and explaining how to turn these concepts into your daily reality.

Learn more about the Connexity 2020 virtual conference.

About the author

Josh Vaisman, CCFP, MAPPCP (PgD), believes that all veterinary professionals deserve to thrive. As owner of Flourish Veterinary Consulting, Vaisman has more than 20 years of experience in the veterinary world, a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology, and an education in positive leadership and positive organizational scholarship. He is also a certified compassion fatigue professional. He is a contributor to Trends magazine, he is currently writing a book on building a positive practice culture with AAHA Press, and he will be leading The Secret Sauce of Leading Effective Veterinary Teams session at the 2020 Connexity conference.

 Photo credt: © Getty/FatCamera