Veterinary Hospital Leadership Tips for a Post-COVID World

Mar 1, 2023

Many veterinary hospital owners & operators have been seeking veterinary hospital leadership tips to better navigate running a veterinary hospital in a post-COVID world. No question, the pandemic and its aftermath have created permanent changes in the way businesses operate, with significant impacts on veterinary hospitals. Stress and anxiety, commonplace in practices pre-pandemic, have increased significantly with operational changes and uncertainty related to personal wellbeing and economic security.

To manage these changes, veterinary hospital leadership must adapt to help both their teams and veterinary hospitals thrive. Leaders need to expand their skill sets to create favorable practice conditions, where employees are empowered, and leaders successfully manage themselves by understanding how their actions (or lack of actions) impact their followers. With this scenario affecting veterinary hospitals worldwide, it’s important to look at ways veterinary hospital leaders can successfully adapt to the changing needs of their veterinary workforce.

Top 3 Veterinary Hospital Leadership Tips

Tip 1: Learn How Leadership Styles Impact Workplace Culture

Seminal research conducted in the early 2000’s and published by Harvard Business Review identified that leaders’ emotions influence and shape their leadership style, which directly impacts workplace culture and psychological safety. In a related article also published in the Harvard Business Review, six leadership styles were identified:
Coercive: Employees must comply with the leader’s wishes; characterized by top-down leadership style that excludes the employee in decision-making and daily operational processes.

  • Authoritative: Clearly conveys the vision and invites employees to be part of the process; allows the team autonomy in how they achieve the goal.
  • Affiliative: Relational leadership approach where people come first, goals and tasks second. This approach positively influences empathy and communication.
  • Democratic: Collaborative approach, where team members’ perspectives are elicited and incorporated in creating business initiatives. Outcomes are trust, respect, and organizational commitment.
  • Pacesetting: High-performance standards are set and role-modeled by the leader. Employees who cannot meet these high demands become demoralized due to rigidity, and autonomy in how work is done is greatly diminished.
  • Coaching: Helps employees identify and achieve career goals. Delegates effectively and understands that short-term failure is a learning opportunity that leads to long-term learning and results.

A veterinary leader may use multiple leadership styles throughout the day. For example, when managing a critical emergency, the leader may be very ‘coercive’ and directive, which is needed to lead the team during the stressful event. When trying to gain buy-in for a new hospital initiative, both the “democratic” and “affiliative” styles are helpful.

During the pandemic, directive leadership styles, such as ‘coercive’ and ‘pacesetting’, were detrimental to the workplace culture, according to a 2021 McKinsey & Company research study. In hospitals where leadership used these styles, employees felt less emotionally safe. This factor, in combination with the stresses of managing overwhelming caseloads, understaffing, and uncertainty drove many talented professionals to abandon the veterinary field. In general, businesses whose leadership embraced the “affiliative,” “democratic,” and “coaching” leadership styles were able to focus on creating new ways of doing business that energized and engaged their teams. These actions empowered employees and gave them a sense of control, which was missing during the pandemic. (Source: MIT Sloan Management Review, December 14, 2020.)

The aftermath of the pandemic has seen increased turnover in veterinary hospitals and increasing dissatisfaction in the workforce. While salaries and benefits have substantially increased, discontent continues as employees seek more meaningful work. Leveraging leadership for the present requires a blend of the following styles:

  • Authoritative, where employees have the autonomy to design their work and how it is completed.
  • Democratic, which allows veterinary teams to co-create outcomes with their leaders.
  • Coaching, which will create pathways for continued growth and development of the team member and encourage a culture of learning.

A critical component in utilizing effective leadership styles is an understanding of “Followership.” The act of leading involves two parties: the leader and the follower. A leader cannot lead if they don’t have followers. The ability of a leader to lead isn’t impacted by followership, but by following behaviors. Followship behaviors are heavily influenced by the actions of the leaders. It is through this relationship that co-created outcomes occur. This concept is foundational to leveraging leadership.

Tip 2: Managing a Leader’s Behaviors

By its very nature, veterinary medicine is filled with the unexpected; as a result, teams work in unpredictable workplaces daily. Well-meaning leaders contribute to the stress and anxiety that their teams experience, often unknowingly, through their words and actions. Leveraging leadership demands that leaders understand the impact of how they act and communicate to their teams and that they strive to minimize negative behavioral patterns. (Source: 5 Ways Leaders Accidently Stress Out Their Employees. Harvard Business Review May 11, 2020.)

The 5 leadership behaviors that can compromise a veterinary team include:

  • Negative Language: Leaders should be aware of their moods and of their use of negative language. There is a strong connection between a leader’s moods and how they choose to express themselves verbally. Words that increase followers’ sense of anxiety or cause them to be fearful, such as “appalling,” “substandard,” or “disappointing,” should be avoided. Alternatives to the harsh words above could be those that convey a more positive tone, yet convey the seriousness of the situation, include “surprising,” “room for improvement,” or “opportunities for growth.”
  • Irregular or Unpredictable Actions: Instability and uncertainty are triggers for anxiety and stress. To counterbalance the unpredictable nature of caring for pets and their owners, leaders need to have a stabilizing influence by acting in dependable, consistent ways. Leaders can have a steadying effect by being transparent, open, and authentic in all communications, both verbal and written. Consistent messaging helps to prevent confusion and minimizes the opportunity for misinterpretations.
  • Emotional Volatility: The impact of leaders’ emotions on the people around them (‘mood contagion’) is well-documented. If leaders are excitable, their stress tends to amplify emotions within their teams, and chaos ensues. When leaders can temper their emotions, and remain calm and composed, their followers will imitate them which helps reduce anxiety within the team.
  • Extreme Negativity: When teams are stressed or anxious, negativity further demotivates them and increases insecurity. Leaders should project optimism during times of uncertainty. Well-founded and truthful reassurance will help followers feel more confident, which lowers the levels of anxiety and stress in the workplace.
  • Ignoring Employee Emotions: Humans are emotional creatures, so it is expected they’d bring emotions with them to work. When leaders fail to focus on emotions that are present in the workplace, they lose the opportunity to manage the emotions, and their impact. This is worsened when leaders solely focus on their own emotions. Leaders can modulate stress and anxiety in the workplace in two ways:
    • Recognize how deeply their actions impact their followers, both positively and negatively. Self-awareness allows leaders to modify their emotional responses, resulting in less emotional whiplash experienced by the team.
    • Create a space where team members can share what emotions they are bringing to work each day. This can be verbally, such as in a team huddle at the beginning of each shift where leaders ask their followers “What are you bringing to work today?” This also can be accomplished visually, by creating a mood indicator chart on which team members can place different signs of their emotional state.

Tip 3: The Role of Trust in Leveraging Leadership

In veterinary hospitals, teamwork depends on the ability to effectively collaborate with one another. Successful collaboration starts with the actions of the leader and depends on trust, which forms when followers believe that the leader’s intentions are fair, truthful, and that the leader will make decisions that support their wellbeing and best interests.
When a leader’s actions cause stress and anxiety in the workplace, are inauthentic or when leaders fail to show that they care about their followers, trust can be broken. Leveraged leadership requires that leaders build a culture of trust by being authentic, displaying sound logic and showing empathy. (Source: Harvard Business Review May-June 2020)

Trust can be generated with a combination of the actions listed below:

  • Authenticity: Authenticity often is associated with “sincerity, honesty, and integrity. It happens when leaders are genuine and bring and express their true selves to work. To be authentic, a leader’s words must align with their actions, which are supported by their values and beliefs. Furthermore, the leader must find common ground with followers by learning from and sharing past experiences with them. Trust is formed when team members get to know and understand their leaders, and each other. When leaders are inauthentic, it sends a message to employees that the workplace is not a safe space to reveal who they really are. This leadership action results in less willingness by followers to be vulnerable to the leader, which inhibits trust.
  • Logic: Veterinary team members trust their leaders to make decisions that are in the team’s best interests. When leaders are indecisive, lack follow-through or poorly communicate with followers, trust breaks down. To maintain trust, leaders need to share the reasons for their decisions in using easily understood logic.
  • Empathy: Called the building block of compassion, empathy is defined as the awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. (Source: Working With Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group 2008) When leaders express empathy to their followers, it conveys to the veterinary teams that they are cared about and valued. Actively communicating empathy involves gaining an understanding and appreciation of the employee’s situation and verbally reflecting it back in a supportive way.

When faced with rapidly evolving employee expectations, veterinary team leaders need to be prepared to adapt and deploy veterinary hospital leadership tips that create and enhance the dynamic relationship of leaders and followers. Using leveraged skills, leaders consciously shape their words and actions to create more supportive work environments and grow trust will reap the rewards of a more committed, effective veterinary team.

About The Author:
Wendy Hauser, DVM is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting and has practiced for 30+ years as an associate, practice owner, and relief veterinarian. She also has worked in the animal health industry as a pet health insurance executive and as a technical services veterinarian. Dr. Hauser consults with both industry partners and individual veterinary hospitals. She is a regular presenter at veterinary conferences, facilitating workshops on hospital culture, associate development, leadership, client relations and operations. She has written & published more than 100 articles related to the veterinary industry, and she is the co-author of “The Veterinarian’s Guide to Healthy Pet Plans.”

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