The ABCs of transforming workplace culture

We have to be the change we want to see in our veterinary team cultures

Office gossip is a big source of toxic culture in the office. Set a good example by not participating in it, addressing potential issues at their core, and presenting possible solutions to solve problems. PHOTO COURTESY KONG DING CHEK /E+ / GETTY IMAGES
Office gossip is a big source of toxic culture in the office. Set a good example by not participating in it, addressing potential issues at their core, and presenting possible solutions to solve problems.

What does it mean when you say toxic workplace? Meriam Webster defines toxic as “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

At work, we are talking about drama, infighting, and unhappy employees taking its toll and impacting productivity, efficiency, and (you guessed it) the overall culture in the clinic. Arbitrary deadlines, useless assignments that don’t translate to productivity, and—worst of all—the overall wellbeing of the team feels unimportant. We see practice employees lose interest in a unified why, unable to connect their actions with success.


Close your eyes after each question below and be honest with yourself when answering:

  • What was on your mind before you went to work?
  • What was the first thing you did when you got there/or just before you got there?
  • Did you text (or call) a colleague anything work related when you weren’t at work?
  • Was it positive or negative?
  • Do your words and deeds contribute toward unification toward the common welfare of your team? Your clients? Your patients? The community?
  • Do you communicate clearly what you need or want to do a great job and do so to the right people/person?
  • When at work, are you focused on your why? (Why did I become a veterinary tech? Why did I take this job?)
  • Are you conducting yourself and your day per protocol and expectations?
  • Are your behavior or actions harmful to the hospital or people that work there?
  • Do you think the worst of your coworkers/leaders or place of employment yet stay there?
  • When a new team member is introduced, do you lift them up with training/mentorship and help them “learn the ropes” or do you tell them how to cope with Dr. Jekyll and why the manager keeps that bad receptionist?

If your answers to these questions reflect you, then perhaps it is yourself that is toxic (i.e. you just told the new girl all the doctors suck and then spent a half hour looking at your cellphone). If so, it’s time to figure out why and do something about it. If this isn’t you, and you work with someone who is toxic, it’s time to address it.

A = Accountability

A willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions may not be something you’re born with. If we aren’t born with it, how do we acquire it? First, know what it looks like, what it sounds like, and, best of all, what it feels like.

Here are some phrases to describe accountable cultures:

  • Results are communicated and understood.
  • Standards and expectations are clear.
  • Ownership mentality starts at the top and leaders model it.
  • Leaders own their mistakes (and often the mistakes of others) and take responsibility to fix them.
  • Goals are clearly defined.
  • Communication—over communication to avoid missing anything—feedback in real time.
  • People trust one another.

I asked my colleague, David Liss, RVT, VTS (ECC), CVPM, MBA, how accountability impacts culture. David had a great response, which was to define accountability as, “the antidote to excuses.” He gave a scenario I could immediately relate with:

Mrs. Smith says, “I’m here for Fluffy’s prescription.” Jane, the CSR handling the inquiry, takes a quick inventory of the Rxs for pickup and announces to Mrs. Smith that the Rx isn’t there. Jane muses out loud, “The techs didn’t fill it, let me find someone…” as she trails off to the back. She locates a tech—let’s call her Lexi—and asks about the Rx. Lexi exclaims, “Nancy didn’t fill any of the Rx requests today!” and storms off. Half an hour later, Jane emerges with the Rx and a story about how no one is doing their job.

Lots of blame, tons of shame.

Alternative scenario:

Mrs. Smith says, “I’m here for Fluffy’s prescription.” Jane takes a quick inventory of the Rxs for pickup and notices the Rx isn’t there. While Mrs. Smith is still chatting away, Jane prints the refill label. When Mrs. Smith pauses, Jane simply says, “I’ll be right back with your prescription.” Jane fills the meds and brings them up front to Mrs. Smith to complete the transaction. The whole thing takes less than 10 minutes and everyone is happy.

Jane doesn’t dwell on who did or didn’t complete this task; she simply gets it done.

David says accountability starts at the top, with leaders modeling expected behaviors. We could really connect on this scenario and the need to stop having a “write-up culture” where people get in “trouble” or there are investigations for everything from a failure to fill a prescription in a timely manner to issues with medical mistakes.

B = Behavior

Complaining a lot? While some research argues “some complaining is healthy,” it is clear if you are complaining all the time, something is wrong.

Complaining can be a bonding moment, but chronic complaining leads to increased stress. Identifying why is your first step toward making changes.

How can you tell if you’re a complainer? Try auditing yourself. Review texts, emails, and conversations—think 80/20—are you complaining or griping in more than 20 percent of your correspondence?

Venting is healthy when:

  • You use “I” statements
  • You focus on one topic
  • You own up to your part
  • You keep it brief/don’t take time away from work or personal life
  • You empower solution exploration
  • It isn’t ruminating
  • It feels beneficial

It’s not venting if it goes on all day and you don’t feel a sense of relief. It’s not venting when it’s about someone, not something. When you make it about a person, not a task or process, you are gossiping/complaining, not venting.

Are you resentful, ruminating on problems, or experiencing rampant anxiety? Ruminating on problems means you play them over and over in your head or mind’s eye. What is the result? You are angry. You take everything personally. Heed the warning signs and get help! There are resources out there to help you. If you are suffering, you will cause suffering to the environment and people around you. (See “Resources” section at the left if this is you.)

C = Challenges

Does it seem you are set up for failure due to larger systems and challenges that may not support a healthy and fulfilling environment?

  • Roles are not well defined or respected in the practice, leading to confusion, redundancy, and lack of accountability. This can lead to a feeling of futility, and, ultimately, job abandonment.
  • Doing too many different tasks at once, called context switching, decreases productivity, costing not just money, but driving quality of care and patient outcomes down.
  • Inability to solve problems—no sense of things improving or moving forward when suggestions are made but not implemented due to constant roadblocks.
  • Your clinic is beholden to a budget that is outdated or unrealistic leading to inventory outages, unpaid bills, or other financial stressors.

When not addressed, challenges evolve into toxic work cultures. Structure (think: job descriptions) and systems (infrastructure) we rely upon to function are so necessary that lack thereof causes dismay, frustration, and even despair.

Manage up by making detailed suggestions for turning it around. Be specific and try using the “P.I.S.S. approach.”

You: Dr. Jones, can I talk with you about our phone system?

Dr. Jones: Sure Amanda, let’s meet at 4 p.m.

Now it’s time for P.I.S.S.:

PROBLEM: You (at meeting): As I’m sure you’ve noticed, our phones are constantly dropping calls, resulting in inefficiencies that are really bringing the team down, and costing the clinic money, resources, and even our reputation.

IMPACT: Dr. Jones acknowledges the problem statement and its impact. Ask a couple follow up impact questions, such as, “Has that happened to you? What was the client’s reaction when that happened to you?” Acknowledge the consequences and support your meeting premise (e.g.: “That must have been frustrating”).

SOLUTION: You must present a viable resolution. It may not be the final plan, but dialogue is how problems get solved. “Dr. Jones, I researched some information about our type of phone system and it’s known for dropping calls. I saw a couple of solutions that may improve our efficiency. These are two budget friendly options. I thought this could be a jumping off point.”

STRATEGY: Craft the plan agreed upon using a step-by-step methodology. You can storyboard a plan to get you there. Storyboarding is simply a goal made into a visual, step-by-step process. When we visualize the plan in bite-size pieces, we are more likely to successfully implement the solution.

Now you’ve a) impressed your boss, b) explored solutions, c) created a strategy, and d) cultivated a sense of empowerment and a source of self-esteem. (Get the team involved in these challenges and check out the culture results.)

Sometimes the issue isn’t the phones, but, rather, the people. I’ve seen the chat boards—feeling cornered, frustrated, and fed up. Your happiness and a healthy work culture lies within. Healthy, happy people contribute to a positive culture at work and beyond.

Suggestions for finding that joy and living your best life:

  • Prioritize self-care.
  • Grow your self-awareness.
  • Create strong boundaries—work is work, so when you walk out that door and aren’t getting paid, you are simply you.
  • Understand your place in the equation and value yourself. That could mean you have to leave the job.

Investing in ourselves—in developing self-esteem, confidence, and self-control—we become accountable and contribute to building healthy veterinary team cultures. In short, we have to be the change we want to see in our veterinary team cultures. Only then will we have what we truly crave: a healthy, happy place to work where each person is valued for their contribution and feels a sense of belonging.


  • The Science of Happiness at Work:

  • Mindfulness and Gratitude:

  • Helpful apps:

  • Accountability:

“How to Build a Culture of Accountability”

  • Accountability Framework (Systems to create accountability):

S2T: Survive to Thrive, Brotherton, J; Proud, A; Russ, D (email:

  • Understanding Toxic Cultures: April 25, 2019, 8:32 AM PDT By Julie Compton

  • Complaint Cleanse:

Book by Kaia Roman: The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness.

  • Venting:

The American Institute of Stress

  • Context Switching:

  • Storyboarding:

  • Workplace Stress:

  • Learn and gain tools to combat workplace stress:

Amanda Proud, BS, CVPM, SPHR, has worked extensively as a practice manager, hospital administrator, and consultant for more than 20 years. Her current position is hospital administrator at Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

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