Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 2 Human Resources

Becoming a good colleague (Part 2)

Published 27/04/2021

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

Also available in Français , Deutsch and Español

Once you've accepted a post at a practice, you'll need to learn how to manage people. You'll also need  to take care of yourself to avoid burn-out. This chapter tells you how.

Becoming a good colleague

Key points

Even if you don’t manage staff, you need to be aware of the basic rules of managing people.


Managing a good work-life balance and avoiding burn out is essential even for young veterinary surgeons.


How to supervise and motivate staff

Whether or not your role in the practice includes direct responsibility for other staff, it is highly likely that at times you will be asked to supervise the work of other team members. This could be the team of nurses or technicians that are working with you in the operating theatre or the lay staff in a branch where you are the most senior staff member on site. Whatever your role, having an understanding of how to get the best from others will help you.

Respect others

The most important rule for any supervisor is “to respect others at all times”. You should always demonstrate respect for your colleagues, whatever their role or background, or however well you perceive they carry out their roles. It is helpful to remember that everyone who works in a veterinary practice does so because they want to help animals have better lives, and so it would be extremely unusual for a member of the team to come to work with the deliberate intention of doing something wrong.
There is therefore no excuse for showing a lack of respect for our colleagues by shouting or raising our voice, behaving in an intimidatory way (bullying), referring to them by anything other than their chosen name, or making comments that refer to their gender, sexual preference or religious beliefs.

Giving feedback

One of the key roles of a supervisor is to provide effective feedback to team members. Giving and receiving feedback is an important component both for improving the performance of individuals and for identifying process improvements.

There are many complex psychological models for giving and receiving feedback; however, one simple method that works in most circumstances is “The Feedback Burger”.

Giving effective feedback is like making a burger. You start with a base “bun” of praise, then provide the meat for the filling by focusing first on your observation of the action you wish to review, then your perception as to the effect of this action on the issue concerned, then question the team member(s) for their ideas or suggest the improvement required, and finish off with the top bun consisting of a summary of the action agreed, and a layer of praise for agreeing to this outcome (Figure 7).

 
Figure 7. A simple model for giving and receiving feedback: “The Feedback Burger”. © Shutterstock

Praise in public, criticise in private

Let’s be generous with the praise and discreet with the criticism. If there is any behaviour by our colleagues that bothers us, we should try to resolve it with them, by raising the matter in private (Figure 8). Your boss will not trust or support a young employee that systematically criticises their co-workers.
 

Figure 8. Compliments can be paid in public, criticisms or negative feedback must always be a private matter. © Shutterstock

The power of “thank you”

There is no better motivator than a simple, well-timed “thank you”. The more personal and specific the praise, the more powerful it becomes. When you say “thank you”, try to refer to the specific thing that your colleague has done, and tell them why the resulting outcome was beneficial to you, the pet, the client or the practice. For example, “By staying on late last night, you ensured that we were able to provide immediate care to the patient, which greatly increased our chances of achieving a positive outcome. Thank you!”

Another very effective way of giving praise is to repeat it to a more senior member of the practice team. This can be done verbally, or by including them in the distribution of an e-mail or memo. Seeing that you are prepared to praise them at higher levels provides additional recognition of their efforts and so reinforces the value of the praise.

 
Philippe Baralon

There is no better motivator than a simple, well-timed “thank you”. The more personal and specific the praise, the more powerful it becomes.

Philippe Baralon

Motivating through job enrichment

Good managers and supervisors constantly seek ways to motivate their staff through job enrichment. Care needs to be taken to ensure that a job is not “enriched” to the point that the employee can no longer comfortably perform the role, because if this occurs then they will quickly become dissatisfied. Communication and ongoing feedback is the key to striking the right balance (Box 2).
 
Box 2

 Examples of job enrichment

  • Giving a person a complete unit of work
  • Giving extra responsibility
  • Introducing new and more difficult tasks
  • Giving a person specific tasks so that they become “expert”

 

Developing staff for the future

Larger commercial organisations and increasingly larger veterinary practices are adopting a more structured approach to performance management to formalise the process of developing individuals within the practice. Whether your practice uses a formal system or a more informal approach, the concept will be the same; that the achievement of the practice’s goals and objectives can be best achieved by developing its people. Numerous studies have shown that a well-integrated approach to performance management shows benefits in terms of commitment, clarity of goals and job satisfaction.

In its simplest form (which is often suited to the scale of most veterinary practices), the performance management system will consist of 3 phases:

1. An appraisal

An annual appraisal is at the heart of all performance management systems. An employee and their immediate line manager sit down and review progress over the past year, and agree on the development objectives for the coming 12 months. Whether formal or informal, the annual review should be a positive, ongoing part of developing all staff (including you!).

2. Individual development plan

The key output from the appraisal is the individual development plan, which should set out how the development objectives identified during the appraisal are to be achieved. An important part of the plan is that the employee assumes responsibility for their own development, with the support of the practice and their immediate supervisor.

3. Regular review

Progress against the development plans should be reviewed at least once during the year and, ideally, each quarter so that progress can be monitored and adjustment made if required. Senior management should also review the overall functioning of the performance management system to ensure that all employees have been appraised at the agreed time, and that their reviews are kept up-to-date.

How to get the best out of your first practice

Once the excitement at the thought of starting a new or even your first job has passed, you will want to reflect on how you can make the experience as worthwhile as possible. Meeting a new team can be a daunting prospect for many people and you will be keen to try to “fit in”. Here are a few simple steps that you can take that will increase the likelihood that your experience will be beneficial both to you and to your new employer.
 

Understand your own goals

Take some time to reflect on what you are hoping to achieve both professionally and personally from your role in the practice. Be prepared to be both demanding of yourself, yet realistic with what the practice can provide for you. Set down not just what you want but what you will have to do to achieve this, and by when. Against each of your goals, set out what will be the benefit to you if you achieve it (the Gain) and what issues will be created if you don’t (the Pain). By looking at the difference between the Gain and the Pain, you will be better able to judge how important a particular goal is to you.
 

Reference your goals in terms of the practice

When setting out your own goals, take time to reflect on what achieving your goals will contribute to the practice. Try to identify how, if the practice supports your goals, these will help them to achieve their goals too. The greater the degree of mutual benefit, the more likely it becomes that the practice will support you. Conversely, if you can see that there is little or no benefit to the practice, then you cannot expect their support, and you will have to be prepared to make private arrangements or to reach a mutually beneficial agreement on how to proceed.
 

Discuss them openly at the start

Your new employer will expect you to have ambitions and a desire to improve your own skills. Indeed, they may have asked you about them during the recruitment process. Failure to achieve personal ambitions is the most common cause of good employees leaving a practice. As such, you should not be afraid to discuss your goals openly with your employer, bearing in mind the advice above, and seek to work with them to develop a mutually beneficial pathway.
 

Maintain an ongoing dialogue (Review and Learn)

As we have discussed, to be effective the relationship between an employer and an employee should be mutually beneficial to both parties, and for this to be the case there will often need to be an element of compromise on both sides. There also needs to be an acceptance that the needs of both parties will change over time. As such, it is important to create and maintain an ongoing dialogue with your employer through your line manager. Ultimately, the employee should assume responsibility for their own development, and be prepared to take a proactive role in this process.
 

How to make effective use of your time

Time is a unique resource; it cannot be stored, stretched, compressed or in any way changed. We have to make the best of it.
 

Planning your time

It is often said that “Success is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration” (Figure 9), meaning that time spent preparing to do something can be more than saved during the act of actually doing something.
  • So, always start the day with a plan!
  • Make a list of everything that you hope to do today, then organise your time by prioritising your task list: is the task urgent; is the task important; is the task both urgent and important; is the task neither urgent nor important?
  • Plan to complete your list in order of priority by completing: first, tasks that are both urgent and important, then tasks that are urgent, and finally the tasks that are important. If a task is neither urgent nor important, ask yourself why you are doing it!
Figure 9. Allocating more time to the planning and preparation will result in saving time during the execution.

Organising your time

Decide what to do first:

  • Start with the simple or quick (to get them done).
  • Group similar tasks together (to use your time efficiently).
  • Move on to the bigger tasks.
  • Consider delegating part of the task.
  • If the task is neither urgent nor important:
    - review if it is necessary at all;
    - consider delegating some or all of the task to others.

Directing your efforts

Set yourself realistic targets for what you can achieve and be prepared to create deadlines if this helps you to remain focused. Celebrate your success with breaks or treats to encourage yourself to complete tasks.
 
Directing your energies and efforts is the difference between: “Busyness” and Business


Coordinating with others

We work as part of a team so coordinating our efforts is vital. However, the time we spend together must be justified by the resulting outcome. Managing our time together is vital if we are to make good use of it, so set rules for meetings:

  • Insist on punctuality; respect others and be there on time.
  • Set a clear agenda which includes an objective for each item.
  • Keep focused on the desired outcome, don’t allow distractions.
  • Record the outcomes; what, by whom, by when.
  • Review and learn – the last item on the agenda, how could we have made this meeting more effective
  • Finish on time.
 

Avoid collecting “monkeys”

A “monkey” is a problem looking for a solution. When you have one, it usually prevents you from doing what you really want to do, as in; “If only I didn’t have a problem with this (my monkey) that I have to sort out first..., then I could get on with that...”. We can find ourselves taking a monkey off a colleague in order to help them, as in; “Here, let me have that monkey, now you get on with...”.
 
It is all too easy to find that we have collected all of the “monkeys” in the clinic, such that we have no time to do our other tasks, or to resolve all our own “monkeys”. Avoid this by providing colleagues with the skills and authority to resolve the “monkey” problem for themselves. That way, they can deal with the monkey without your help if it ever comes back again. Remember that a “monkey” is a problem looking for a solution, so provide a solution for it, not a home for it!
 

Controlling our improvements

Create a “time log” to help you to see how you are using your time at present. You may well be surprised!

Review your “log” to identify improvement areas. Plan your improvements by identifying what you need to change and how you are going to achieve this.

Initiate the changes, then after a couple of weeks review your progress. Ask yourself what has gone well and what you have been able to learn (Figure 10).

Then identify what can be done better, plan how this can be achieved, initiate the changes, review your progress and ask yourself “What have I learned?”. Then it’s off around the cycle again:

 We cannot manage time: We can only manage ourselves with respect to time
Antje Blättner

Create a “time log” to help you to see how you are using your time at present.

Antje Blättner

Figure 10. The improvement cycle. © Petr Vaclavek

Managing your time with respect to your colleagues and your clients

An important element of time management is the fact that we are part of a team and as such, our actions are often linked to the actions of others. How we manage our time can have either a positive or negative impact on our colleague’s management of their own time and vice versa.

Recognising the impact of your time management on others (both colleagues and clients) is an important part of working effectively as a team, and delivering high quality client service. So, for example, allowing a consultation to over-run so that you can achieve a more positive outcome for that one client is likely to cause disruption to the many clients that are following on during that session, and may also impact on your colleagues, such that subsequent surgery or meetings have to be delayed or re-scheduled.

Remember to be realistic

Whenever we are asked to do something by a client, colleague or our boss, there is always a great temptation to agree to an unrealistic timescale for fear of causing upset or disappointment. The result will inevitably be that we let this person down and to develop a reputation for being unreliable. Take the time to question and agree to the required timetable so that you understand the urgency and importance of the task, and be prepared to negotiate if necessary to agree on a target that you are comfortable with.
 
If you find that you are continually being asked to achieve tasks in what you consider unrealistic timescales, then you need to discuss these issues with your colleagues or boss to identify if there is an underlying issue with the speed of your work, or your ability to manage your own time. Remember, every vet was a young and inexperienced practitioner at some time, so you will generally find that your more experienced colleagues are both understanding and supportive, and can help you with ideas and suggestions that they have learnt from experience.
 

How to keep a healthy work-life balance

Most vets are very, sometimes even totally, committed to their jobs, working overly long hours and spending most of their lifetime at the clinic or attending continuing education meetings. International studies have found higher levels of workplace stress and job dissatisfaction within the veterinary profession than in other comparable roles; factors which can cause significant psychological symptoms (i.e., stress, anxiety and depression) and in some cases lead to alcohol and drug abuse. Given this fact, it is clearly a good idea for a young vet to be mindful of these concerns and to aim to establish a healthy work-life balance tailored to their individual needs and likes (Box 3). Always keep in mind that a balanced life keeps you healthy, confident and will help you to reach your goals. It also helps those living and working with you because you will be a much more friendly and even-tempered person. If you ensure that you build solid relationships between your professional and private lives, you will establish a natural balance that enables you to cope with the daily challenges of life*.

*JAVMA, Vol 240, No. 7, April 1, 2012 “Veterinarian satisfaction with companion animal visits“.

 

Box 3
 Practical tips to keep a healthy work-life balance
  • Don´t hand out your private phone number and e-mail addresses to clients
  • Don’t answer or ask the client to call the clinic, if you are contacted privately (some owners are very creative in getting your data!)
  • Avoid giving advice or “mini consultations” outside of the practice
  • Don’t provide services outside of the practice
  • Plan, structure and execute a tailor-made work-life balance for yourself
  • Be sensitive to the work-life values at your practice
  • Remember these points when you are the boss

 

Act as a professional

The first and most important message for a functioning (veterinary) work-life balance is: Keep a professional distance between you, your clients and your team. Separate work life and private life strictly from one another in the sense that when you are at your job you are 100% available, but the moment you step outside of your working environment, you are a private person entitled to leisure time. Don´t let pet owners contact you when you are shopping at the local supermarket or via phone and digital media. Be friendly, but consistent with the message: “I have received your request. At the moment I am off duty. Please contact the clinic to schedule an appointment.” This message is also important when interacting with your team at the clinic. It can happen that someone approaches you and tries to load something to do on your shoulders, sometimes under the pretext that you are “so good” at this job or that “I have to rush home today”. You may then even feel complimented and important, but actually someone is manipulating you to do their assigned tasks. This can be tricky, especially at the beginning of your career, because at first it might feel nice to be the “good guy”. Be aware that if you walk into the “good guy trap”, you might not get out again and seriously endanger your work-life balance. It´s far better to be consistent with separating work and home life by making a small exception from time to time if extraordinary situations occur. This does not mean that you can´t be a nice, empathic person – it just means that you should establish and maintain a healthy professional distance, even if it is difficult at times. Establish if your practice shares your values concerning work and leisure time, or if you are required to be available at all times. At the beginning of your career, it might be ok to accept working under suboptimal conditions for a certain amount of time, but, unless the clinic shares your values, you won´t be happy in the long term and you may have to decide to look for a new and more suitable working environment.

Pere Mercader

Establish if your practice shares your values concerning work and leisure time, or if you are required to be available at all times.

Pere Mercader

Clear your priorities

To find out what´s really important in life for you, make a list by writing down everything you like to do, even some things you haven´t done yet. You are allowed to have visions, goals and even dreams. Next, split the list into two parts: private activities (family, sports, hobbies) vs. professional activities. Now you should rank the items from “very important” to “nice to do”, creating a visual overview that shows clearly where your preferences are. The next step is to evaluate the time you already spend on these activities and the time you would like to spend, and to add this data to the important activities in your analysis.

Plan and structure

Once you’ve completed your list of activities, the next step is to create a plan that allocates a balanced timetable for your favourite private and professional activities throughout the week. This way, there is enough time for the things you have to do (duties), the things you want to do (more), as well as (free) time for the spontaneous and unplanned activities which are equally important to us, and should not be overlooked. In a balanced work-life environment, there should always be some space that allows you to do something new and inspiring and some time to do nothing at all. It´s a good idea to place this plan where you can frequently see it; maybe you can even integrate it into your calendar app on your smartphone or laptop. This way, your agenda reminds you when it´s time for certain activities (Figure 11) you really want to do, even if you are, for instance, still treating an animal in emergency care. Being reminded makes you more sensitive to work-life issues and alerts you when you are in danger of shifting and unbalancing your own priorities.

 
Figure 11. You should allocate a balanced timetable for your favourite private and professional activities. It is a good idea to place this plan where you can refer to it, or even integrate it into your calendar app on your smartphone or laptop. © Shutterstock

Get moving

Working as a vet is clearly a physically and emotionally challenging job and often we feel exhausted at the end of a working day and so can´t imagine doing anything other than chilling out or relaxing on the sofa in front of the TV. Whilst being a vet is not a sedentary job, it´s actually not complimentary to your fitness. Research has shown that doing sports regularly is the best way to reduce stress and to compensate for the negative effects of muscle tension and strain during work (Figure 12). You don´t have to run to the gym on a daily basis (that´s impossible for a vet with a full-time job anyway), taking a rapid walk of about 30-40 minutes 3-4 times a week has been proven to have a relaxing and balancing effect. Allocate some time regularly to get out into the fresh air and clear your mind – it´s a fabulous way to straighten out unbalanced priorities and to get focused.
 

Figure 12. Doing sports regularly is the best way to reduce stress and to compensate for the negative effects of one-sided muscle tension and strain during work. ©Shutterstock

Conclusion

As a veterinary surgeon, we tend to focus on the animal and we are not always wired to deal with people. However, the quality of the relationship you will create in your practice will help you to become a good team player. If you follow the tips in this article you can and will be loved, not only by the dogs and cats that you treat, but by your colleagues too!
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

Being a good vet

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