Is gaslighting burning your practice culture to the ground?

Everything we have learned about team well-being teaches us that our people are the most important part of our practice

Gaslighting can cause stress, despair, and hopelessness in staff. Often good employees are so frustrated they feel like they have to quit their jobs and move on, leaving toxic staff behind. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
Gaslighting can cause stress, despair, and hopelessness in staff. Often good employees are so frustrated they feel like they have to quit their jobs and move on, leaving toxic staff behind.

Toxic cultures suck. They suck the life out of you to manage, and the life out of our teams to live in day after day. They suck your creativity, your loyalty, your drive, your dedication. Sometimes the phrase “toxic culture” gets overplayed and misunderstood.

A toxic culture is an environment plagued with in-fighting, blame shifting, lack of accountability, drama, and unhappy team members. This can negatively affect the productivity and well-being of the group. How many of us has experienced the scenario like when doctor “A” is working there is a sense of dread, because they are known for being hard to work with or make happy?

All of us at one time or another during our career has experienced working in a toxic environment. The frustration and stress from feeling helpless and trapped is what leads down a negative path for many team members. There are many causes for toxic practice cultures, and in listening to many people across the veterinary industry share their experiences, we are hearing more and more examples of gaslighting.

The thing about gaslighting is in a lot of instances you don’t know it’s happening, or worse if you are, in fact, gaslighting someone unintentionally.

Gaslighting is the manipulation of a person to gain control or power over them by causing them to question reality.1 It is an unhealthy relationship where one person undermines the memory or reality of another by causing confusion and fear. This is not suggesting that managers, owners, team leads, and our other peers are maliciously mentally attacking their teams. It is quite the opposite.

The hope of this article is to shed some light on this topic so if it’s happening in your practice changes can be made to help preserve our dwindling veterinary team population. A ‘gaslighter’ within your practice demoralizes the team and erodes practice culture. We also consider these players to be the ‘toxic employees.’ Owners and managers work tirelessly to build a positive practice culture, but allow even one toxic team member to stay, and that culture is set ablaze.

Building familiarity

Gaslighting in the practice may not be intentionally malicious toward one person in particular.2 It can be a misused and misunderstood as an out of style management philosophy, like bell-bottoms and big hair.

There are still some leadership folks who believe team members should be grateful to have a job and working for them is a privilege. Insensitive, overbearing behavior on their part is a fair price to pay for having a job, right? Leaders may not realize they are, in fact, gaslighting their team members and causing that person tremendous emotional turmoil. This type of stress can lead to higher turnover.

We are all aware our talent pool of associates, managers, technicians, client service reps, and other support roles are leaving the veterinary industry in droves. Good employees are always the first to go, leaving bad or toxic employees lingering. An entire team of toxic people left standing after the dust settles, now that ruins a practice culture. There goes patient care, client retention, revenue, vacation, practice value, retirement, etc.

Hopelessness, stressed/anxious, angry, harassed and abused, depression, thoughts of suicide. These are some of the feelings associated with being gaslighted at work, they are also the same feelings associated with depression. The way we treat one another, or even how clients are allowed to treat us, plays a large part in how quickly we burn out, or worse. This veterinary generation is leaving in record numbers and our talent pool for future generations is being affected. Let’s dive into what being gaslighted looks like and how we might recognize it in our own practice.

Find yourself questioning your memory about events you believed happened

I once worked with someone who would tell me the owner wanted us to do an established protocol a new way. They would let me know what they think what the owner wants is stupid, but he is the owner, so we do it. The owner later asked why I took it upon myself to change the protocol. I explained I was told he wanted it that way now. I obviously got corrected and when I confronted the person who told me to change the protocol, I was told I must have misunderstood, that isn’t at all what they meant. How many of us have been in this scenario?

The DVM didn’t complete their records and forgot to place a lab order for a lab. The technician working the case with them gets disciplined for it because “it is their job to make sure the associate does their job and remembers everything.” Shifting accountability and blaming someone who has the least amount of authority, but saddled with the highest amount of responsibility, is unfair and will create hopelessness. It is hard enough doing our jobs every day, plus we have to make sure the DVMs do theirs, too. No pressure, it’s not like lives are on the line. Oh, wait.

Feel like you are being ignored or dismissed

When in a team meeting, you ask a question and the response is what you shared is not important, not valid, or not needed. Or as leadership you are only listening and valuing the DVMs in the practice and not seeking the perspective of the support staff during planning or protocol changes that will directly affect them. Let me tell you, your support staff knows what is happening and how it is happening. Dismissing a team member erodes self-esteem. You will not have a team of positive thinkers, performers, and problem solvers if their thoughts, solutions, questions, or ideas, are disrespected or dismissed.

Your supervisor or team member flips the script on you, or flat out lies

One day there is one set of rules and the next day the rules have changed without notice. You get corrected for doing something that was okay yesterday, and the protocols are to be followed on a case-by-case basis.

Shifting already unsteady ground is a hard environment to work in. People will begin to refuse to make decisions for fear of being wrong, corrected, or reprimanded. Instead, they will ask for answers to questions they already know the answers to. If you notice this trend becoming more prevalent, take a step back and try to figure out why. Are there mixed messages floating around creating confusion?

Blame shifting/Credit stealing

Inability to own a mistake or problem and shifting blame to someone else in order to get the attention off themselves. Mistakes do happen. Learning from them, unfortunately, is optional. Having a safe place that our teams can go to share mistakes in the hopes of getting help with the solution is a powerful way of staving off blame shifting. The victim of the shift will be blindsided and angry, and the communication within the team dynamic will most definitely be damaged.

Taking credit for someone else’s work, or failing to acknowledge their role, is just as demoralizing. When our staff members step up and do a great job and don’t get the recognition they deserve, they are diminished. If this is a common theme in the practice, then the “why should we even try” mentality can take root. You could have your hands full of “do the minimum to stay under the radar” team members. Encourage your teams, grow their confidence, celebrate the wins!

What to do if you are being gaslighted

There are a few steps you can take to be sure you are protecting yourself from the effects of gaslighting. First the logistical stuff, be sure to document events, protocol changes, and your experience with the gaslighter.

Then, when told something you know to be false, or different, refer to your notes. “Yesterday you said XYZ, today you are saying ABC, is this the new protocol? I will make a note of it.” This is letting them know you are on top of what they say, and you have kept meticulous notes. They will think twice before they try to play you again.

Lastly, and most importantly, lean on your own confidence and well-being. No one should be able to take up space in your head rent free. This means no one, no one, gets to make you feel anything about yourself that you do not consent to feel or think. You are an amazing part of the team and the gifts you share, impact and play a role in saving the lives of your patients every day, is your rock you stand firmly on.

Ultimately, without support, there may be nothing you can do that makes staying in that practice possible. You should never consider staying anywhere that is unhealthy for you physically or mentally. Everything we have learned and will continue to learn about team well-being is teaching us that our people are the most important part of our practice. Times are changing. People in our industry are realizing it doesn’t have to be this way. The toxic employees should be the first ones to go. There is a name for what toxic employees do to us and it is called gaslighting.

Managers and owners please have faith and loyalty in your good team members, protect them, defend them, support them. Be loyal and supportive to yourself, as well. Get rid of the staff members who are toxic to your own well-being, to your practice, to your patients, to your clients, to your livelihood, and most importantly, to your teams!

WHY ‘GASLIGHTING?’

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the movie, the husband (Boyer) slowly drives his wife (Bergman) crazy by trying to convince her she’s imagining things. It resonated then as it does now, with seven Oscar nods and two wins.

Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, CDMP, is founder and co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, a social media and brand management company. She spent 15 years as a practice manager working the day-to-day challenges of the veterinary practice and experienced firsthand the stresses, joys, communication dilemmas, and wonders of working in veterinary medicine. She now dedicates her work and energy to helping practices succeed online, and coaching team members with the skills that will hopefully prolong their careers.

Linda Miller, BS, CCFP, has over 20 years of business experience. She has earned degrees in business management, psychology, interdisciplinary studies, and business administration. As co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, she manages client’s social media accounts as well as works for VetMedTeam as an operations assistant. As a certified compassion fatigue professional, her passion lies in teaching skills and providing staff with the necessary tools to help them sustain a long enjoyable career in the veterinary industry.

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