Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 2 Human Resources

Becoming a good colleague (Part 1)

Published 26/04/2021

Written by Philippe Baralon , Antje Blättner , Pere Mercader and Mark Moran

Also available in Français , Deutsch and Español

Even the most skilful surgeon or physician needs a good team to succeed, and as a recent graduate you will certainly want others to help and support you. You only get one opportunity to make a good “first impression” when starting a new job; this article will help you avoid potential pitfalls as you commence your professional career.

Becoming a good colleague

Key points

Being accepted in a practice will require the right behaviour from the beginning.


It’s important to be aware of role requirements of a boss or team leader, and to understand how you contribute to his or her performance.


 

How to be accepted by the whole practice team

Whilst we would all like to think that our new colleagues will always accept any new team member into the fold, experience has shown that this cannot be guaranteed. The reasons may be very complex, and will most likely be due to past events at the practice that you will have had no control over, and rather than being directly down to you personally. That said, there are simple steps that you can take which can encourage the process of becoming part of the team.

Seek to earn the respect of your colleagues

Never assume that respect from your colleagues or co-workers is a right, or that it can be assured because of your past achievements or your new role in the practice. You should always set out to “earn” the respect of your colleagues. Remember, your colleagues can only judge you by what you say or what you do, and they will be watching and listening very carefully when you start as they try to form their own opinion of you. It is also worth bearing in mind that “first impressions” are important, because they can be difficult to change once formed.

Show a genuine interest in team members and their roles

Delivering good quality patient and client care requires contributions from all the practice team. Exactly who does what will vary from practice to practice, reflecting the skills, experience and interests of team members. Because of this, the roles and responsibilities associated with job titles can differ quite significantly from one practice to another. Take the time to find out about your new colleagues. What is their background and experience, what role do they have in the practice, what are their special areas of interest? Ask them what you can do to make their job easier, and be sure to listen and act upon the advice given (Figure 1).
 

Figure 1. Don’t be shy, pay attention to others, greet your colleagues in a friendly way, say “good morning“ and shake hands or use other physical forms of greeting as appropriate. © Shutterstock
 

Question rather than challenge

Every practice will have developed their own way of doing things. These will reflect the values of the clients, the age and experience of the clinical team, relationships with key suppliers and local risks to animal health. Their ways may be quite different from what you have experienced before, or what you were taught in vet school. When you meet something new or unexpected, take care that you are not seen to “challenge” the status quo. It is always best to ask questions so that you can explore and understand the reasons for the actions (Figure 2). It is the difference between “Surely that’s not right!” and “I’ve not done it like this before; what are the advantages of doing it this way?”.
 

Figure 2. It is always best to ask questions so that you can explore and understand the reasons for the actions. © Shutterstock
 

Seek help when needed

One of the most common complaints we hear in practice is that new staff members are so keen to demonstrate their worth that they avoid asking for help and advice. The result can be more work for other members of the practice team to rectify issues, or even worse, a poor outcome for a patient or client. 

Your new practice will be aware of your experience to date, and they will not expect you to know everything. Establish who you can seek advice from (if you have shown an interest in your colleagues you will know who to ask), and the best way to do this. Your colleagues will not thank you for being too proud or stubborn to ask for their help (Figure 3).

 
Figure 3. Never be too proud to ask for help from a more experienced colleague. ©Shutterstock

Offer support to others

There is an old saying that “One good turn deserves another”. Make the time to help your colleagues and they will help you. The most important things to remember are that you must always seek their permission first, so that your actions are not misinterpreted as meddling or worse, and that you should always ask what the best way to help them is. We all develop our own ways of doing things, and so the support and help we need will be personal to each of us. Never assume that what you would want is what your colleague would want too.
 

How to say “no” without causing offence

At some time, it is inevitable that you will not agree with something, either something that is said, is practice protocol, or that you are asked to do. Learning to say “no” in a constructive way is an important skill for all staff, however, it is especially meaningful for veterinary surgeons given the wide range of clinical options available, and the often conflicting supporting evidence. It will allow you to be assertive, whilst avoiding appearing to be aggressive or difficult (Figure 4).

 
Figure 4. Learning to say “no” in a constructive way is an important skill for all staff. ©Shutterstock

Ask effective questions

The most constructive way to “challenge” an idea or proposal that you have concerns about is to ask the proposer additional questions. As a general rule, if two reasonable people disagree over something, it is because one knows something of which the other is unaware. In other words, both parties are not in possession of all of the facts. Asking questions allows us to explore why the proposer has suggested their preferred route (giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge with us), or can allow us to help the proposer to see the shortcomings of their own position (allowing us to share our knowledge with them in a supportive, rather than combative, way). It is the difference, for example, between stating “But that won’t work when we are short of staff” and asking “How do you see this proposal working when we are short of staff?”.

There are three types of questions that we can ask:

  • Questions to understand what is really being asked or stated. 
    Such as “Can you clarify which cases you see this applying to?”
  • Questions to identify and agree shared outcomes. 
    Such as “Can we agree that ensuring all staff are happy to support this proposal is important?”
  • Questions to identify the way forward. 
    Such as “How can we ensure the stock we need is in place before we implement this?”
 

Become a good listener

The golden rule for effective questioning is that if you ask a question you must be prepared to listen to all of the answer. Here are some more tips for becoming a more effective listener:
 
  • Demonstrate by what you do and say that you care about the other person’s point of view.
  • If you don’t want to hear a long answer, then ask the question in a way that encourages a short reply.
  • Maintain concentration throughout their response to ensure you do not miss something that is important, especially if you suspect you know already what they are going to say.
  • Take time to weigh up what is being said before responding, even if this creates a silence.
  • Use acknowledgements to give you thinking time such as “I can see why you feel that this is important...”.
  • Develop questions to fill in the “gaps” in your understanding such as “You said this was important to many clients. Why do you feel this is the case?”
     
Antje Blättner

The golden rule for effective questioning is that if you ask a question you must be prepared to listen to all of the answer.

Antje Blättner

Seek points of agreement

Before choosing to highlight areas of disagreement, it is always helpful to first seek out the points on which we can agree. Even in situations where we might hold apparently divergent views from our colleagues, there is usually an underlying point of principle that we can identify and agree, upon such as “The patient’s welfare is our primary concern”, or “We must work together to achieve the best outcomes for our patients”. Finding points of agreement helps us to identify the true scope of our differences.

Demonstrate your support

Identifying where we are already in agreement also allows us to show our support to our colleagues by giving a “qualified yes” if necessary; that is, stating clearly what we can agree to. It is the difference between saying “I am not happy with this proposal”, and “I agree it would be beneficial for our patients if we were able to... and I am happy to work with others to find the best way to achieve this.”

How to resolve conflicts if they arise

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we might find ourselves in a situation where we are in conflict with one of our colleagues. These can arise as a result of professional differences, or as a result of how either we or our colleagues react to stressful or unusual situations. So, whilst it is true that we should always treat our co-workers with respect and vice-versa, the reality is that issues can sometimes arise. If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some steps that you can take to help to resolve the matter quickly and with as little fuss as possible.
 

Always take a measured response

Conflicts are often the result of how individuals react to stressful or unusual situations; and as such, resolving them will often be easier once the underlying circumstances have returned to normal. Try to avoid adding fuel to the flames by responding in haste, and whenever possible allow both parties the opportunity to reflect before seeking resolution.


Choosing the time and the place

Whilst the “wrong” may have happened in public, it is more likely that finding a resolution will be helped by utilizing a more private setting. Try to find a quiet time and place to hold your follow-up conversation. You should always be prepared to take the first step, and don’t wait for the other party to “blink” first. Leaving problems to “fester” does not help either party; it can create problems for your colleagues and sometimes it can even have a negative effect on patient outcomes.
 

Saying sorry (the power of the apology)

Aim to start the meeting by saying “sorry”. If, following reflection, you can see that your actions were a major contribution to the cause of the dispute, then of course you should be prepared to apologise for your actions and subsequent upset. Otherwise, given that we don’t tend to go into our workplace each day looking to deliberately upset our colleagues, we should at the very least be able to apologise for being party to causing an upset. That is not to say that you should admit to being in the wrong if you were not, just that you should always be able to sincerely apologise for the fact that in some way your actions led to a colleague becoming upset or a disagreement arising.
 
Pere Mercader

Try to avoid adding fuel to the flames by responding in haste, and whenever possible allow both parties the opportunity to reflect before seeking resolution.

Pere Mercader

Find a point of agreement

Once you have apologised, find something specific that you can both quickly agree upon. This could be a point of principle (such as you both committing to trying to find a positive resolution), or ideally something closer to the final outcome you would hope for. Clearly, the closer this first point of agreement is to the likely solution, the better. However, the most important factor is that you find a point to agree upon. This is a vital starting point for the eventual outcome.

Question to explore a way forward

Use effective questioning and listening to explore your colleague’s views and to seek a route to solutions. Be prepared to ask them how they would like the matter to be resolved. Remember, they have had time to reflect too, and this question will often produce a response that you can willingly agree with (either as a whole or in part) and may help you to see that any points of difference that remain are quite small.

End with a positive commitment

Always end the discussion on a positive note, even if that is just a commitment to finding a solution, or that you agree that you will meet again, or to involve another party. Remember, if you do need to meet again, this final positive commitment will become your first point of agreement next time that you meet (such as; “When we met last time we agreed that..., didn’t we?).

Understanding your boss

Whether you work in a traditional veterinary practice owned by one or more veterinary surgeons where the practice’s bosses will be partners, or a practice group owned by its shareholders (a company or plc) where the most senior people will be directors, forming an understanding of their role will help you to become a more effective employee, contribute to the development of the practice, and can enhance your future prospects (Box 1). However, your practice is structured, we will refer to these individuals as “your boss”.
 
Box 1
How to manage your first boss?
One of the key issues that a young veterinary surgeon must manage is the relationship with their boss, who is often also the owner of the veterinary centre where they work. Listed below are some key attitudes and behaviours that will help you to be rapidly considered a valuable asset for your clinic:

 Align expectations

“What is expected from me?” This question is the best way to avoid misunderstandings and to clarify the rules of the game at the practice. Other useful questions along these lines could be:
“What qualities and attitudes do you like to find in a young veterinary employee?”
“What criteria will you use to evaluate my performance over the coming months?”
“What tasks and specific results do you expect from me?”

Align your own interests with those of the practice where you work

A classic example in developing your professional abilities. Instead of simply focusing on something that you like (for example, exotic birds), you could ask your boss “What areas of medical speciality will be of most interest to our clinic in the years ahead?”and/or “If I were to consider specialisation in any of these areas, would the clinic be prepared to support me?”.

Be proactive

There is a saying that sums up this attitude perfectly: “For every problem, bring me three solutions”. Normally, the bosses already know the things that are not being done well at the practice and why they are happening. They don’t need a young veterinary surgeon, trying to be a business consultant, contemptuously pointing out the clinic’s constant errors... What they need are teams of people prepared to offer and involve themselves in solutions.

Request feedback regularly

In some practices, there may be a formal performance evaluation system in place, and you will be given feedback in a structured and regular manner. In other practices, however, things can be a bit more informal and you may need to be more proactive by asking: “How do you judge my performance has been in the practice during these last few weeks?” and/or “Is there anything I should do to correct or improve my performance?”.

Carefully observe your boss and learn both the good and the bad

Remember that one day you could be the boss too. By analysing some of the executive behaviour of your boss (both what you like and what you don’t), you can learn lessons that are very valuable for your professional future.

 

The three roles of your boss

In addition to any clinical or managerial duties that a boss performs on a daily basis, there are three key roles that your boss must undertake:

1. Setting and communicating the vision, strategy and values

Every veterinary practice is unique. What it is striving to achieve (its vision and mission), how it is going to achieve this (its strategy) and the way it will treat its patients, clients and staff (its values) has to be decided upon by your boss and communicated throughout the organisation. This key role is the most important, although in many veterinary practices it is somewhat overlooked. Depending on the size of the organisation, the process of developing and communicating the vision, strategy and values may be quite formalised, involving team meetings and with printed or even framed copies available for staff and customers to see, or it may be less formal with the practice’s bosses happy to communicate verbally. Whichever method your practice uses, you should make yourself aware of them and use them to guide your day-to-day actions.

2. Allocating the practice’s limited resources

There is an old saying that “Money can only be spent once”, and it is the role of your boss to decide how the practice’s money and other resources such as staff and facilities are used to best effect. Because all organisations have limits on the resources available to them, there has to be a process to decide how they are used, and the ultimate responsibility for this falls to your boss. In general, there will always be lots of good ideas and suggestions for service improvements that will need resources to develop and deliver, so this process is as much about setting priorities and deciding on the order in which things should be done, as it is about whether or not they should be done at all.

3. Motivating and guiding the team

The third key role of your boss is to motivate and guide the team, and given that modern veterinary practice is very much a team activity this role has become increasingly important (Figure 5). Your boss must find a way to bring the best out of every member of the practice team. How active a role they play in this, or how much they choose to delegate to suitably qualified staff will depend on their own interests and experience, with the result that many differing processes exist across the veterinary profession, ranging from the very informal to more highly structured performance management systems.

 
Mark Moran

The third key role of your boss is to motivate and guide the team.

Mark Moran

Figure 5. One of a boss’ key tasks is to motivate and guide their team. ©Shutterstock

Being the right person

Being a good employee

Your boss will value you more if you make a conscious effort to be a good employee. This means understanding what your practice is trying to achieve (its vision, strategy and values) and doing your best at all times to support these in everything you do. In addition, there are some simple things you can do that will demonstrate your support.

Know your “limits of authority” and follow them

Whatever your role in the practice, it will come with some limits of authority. These define the level of autonomy you have to act, and they will depend on your skills and experience as well as the organisational culture of the practice. Some practices will have defined these limits as part of a written job description, or included them with practice guides and protocols, whereas others will rely on oral rules being understood by all staff. However, your practice chooses to communicate them, you should always make sure that you know your limits and keep within them. The golden rule is that if you are unsure, then ask!

Have a “can-do” attitude

Always try to think about what you can do, not what you can’t. It is the difference between “I can’t do that today” and “I could do that for you by lunchtime tomorrow”. Having a positive attitude to your work demonstrates your support to your boss and the rest of your team (Figure 6).

 
Figure 6. Having a “can-do” attitude demonstrates your support to your boss and the rest of the team. ©Shutterstock

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem

Whenever a problem or issue arises, try to identify a solution based on your own experiences rather than just reporting the problem to somebody else. You will need to bear in mind your limits of authority, which may mean that you will have to seek permission first before you can implement your idea. However, it is always better to put forward a solution rather than just reporting the problem.

Remember your boss is human too

Running a veterinary practice is a very complex business that can sometimes take up a lot of time, and requires a broad range of business and managerial skills. Your boss will on occasions find themselves overstretched, operating outside their comfort zone, or having to deal with new and challenging issues of which they have limited experience. You can demonstrate your understanding of this by making sure that you always communicate and agree on the importance of any task that they give you, and conversely any task that they agree to undertake on your behalf. Setting clear objectives in this way can prevent misunderstandings and allow you both to make most effective use of your time. In a similar way, understand that they are not “perfect” managers, in the same way that we are not perfect at our own roles.

 
Philippe Baralon

Philippe Baralon

Dr. Baralon graduated from the École Nationale Vétérinaire of Toulouse, France in 1984 and went on to study Economics (Master of Economics, Toulouse, 1985) Read more

Antje Blättner

Antje Blättner

Dr. Blättner studied in Berlin and Munich and after graduating in 1988 she set up and ran her own small animal practice. Read more

Pere Mercader

Pere Mercader

Dr. Mercader established himself as a practice management consultant to veterinary clinics in 2001 and since then has developed this role in Spain, Portugal Read more

Mark Moran

Mark Moran

Mark Moran has been a consultant to the veterinary profession for the last 19 years, providing business mentoring and support for veterinary clinic owners and key staff. Read more

Other articles in this issue

Issue number 2 Published 28/04/2021

Being a good vet (Part 1)

“If your only tool is a hammer, all problems resemble a nail”. This section will stress the different factors required to make you a “good clinician” and gain confidence in your medical decisions.

By Philippe Baralon , Antje Blättner , Pere Mercader and Mark Moran