Veterinary Professionals and Leadership

Veterinary Professionals and Leadership

In this chapter we will explore:

  • The nature of the veterinary professional identities
  • Different motivations, mindsets, and drivers
  • Followership
  • The needs of high‐performance individuals
  • What veterinary professionals want (and need) from leadership

Veterinary professionals are some of the kindest, most compassionate, caring, imaginative, hard‐working, good‐humoured, intelligent, and supportive people you could ever have the pleasure of working with. Let’s be honest, they can also be infuriating, cynical, negative, pig‐headed, self‐righteous, and destructive of themselves and others. In this chapter, we will look at some of the reasons this might be, examine the concept of followership, and begin to consider where leadership can help maintain a culture of compassion, positivity, growth, and development.

5.1 Are Veterinary Professionals Different?

How many times, when telling someone what you do for a living, have they said, ‘You must really love animals’, ‘You must be really clever’, ‘I couldn’t do your job’ or ‘I always wanted to do that but….’? It is clear that not everyone can be, or wants to be, a veterinary professional, and that there must, therefore, be some differences between the general population and the veterinary professions, just as there will be between other sections of society. What are some of these differences, and where might they come from?

For many, if not all, achievement of professional status is a significant milestone and rightly comes with a sense of pride and achievement. For many, it may well also come with a sense of overwhelm and impostor syndrome. Adopting the manner, dress, and behaviours expected of a veterinary professional may act as an armour against the anxieties that are suddenly realised when there is no teacher, mentor, or other professional there to defend you.

If you Google images of ‘vet’ or ‘vet nurse’, they are almost all pictures of a smiling professional posing with an animal, often with an item of diagnostic equipment, and dressed in suitable clothing such as surgical scrubs, a checked shirt, or a boiler suit with wellingtons. (Actually, currently, it is overwhelmingly young white women in scrubs with a cute dog or cat, unless you narrow your search down further). This is what the public associates with ‘being a vet’.

If I am a child with aspirations to be a vet (we know this can be from a very young age, whilst there is a great deal of neuropsychological development), I may be told, ‘You have to get very good grades’, or ‘You have to work hard’, or even ‘You are not clever enough to get into vet school’. A child interested in being a vet might choose to spend significant proportions of ‘free’ time working with animals, helping at the vets, etc. Inevitably, this reduces time for developing other interests, skills, and qualities. However, if I am a child who is not perceived as sufficiently able (by myself or others), I may be dissuaded from pursuing these goals in the first place.

Thus, even before we have really thought about university entrance and training, we have an identity of veterinarians and nurses that includes ‘loves animals’, ‘hard working’, ‘dedicated’, ‘clever’, ‘good at getting grades’.

When we add in entrance requirements (high academic achievement, appropriate experience, ‘aptitude’), the impact of university training, the peer group, the hidden curriculum, role models (in practice and at university), clients, and the society around us, it is not surprising that we have a system that drives, through ‘survival of the fittest’ and adaptation, individuals towards a professional veterinary identity that may be a significant part of ‘self’ (Figure 5.1). This may also require us to ‘fit in’ and hide our true identities, rather than feeling we ‘belong’.

Schematic illustration of the forging of veterinary professionals.

Figure 5.1 The forging of veterinary professionals. At each point there is selection, development, and ‘fitting in’, which leads to the end product.

Collusive group denial of the work difficulties comes through group behaviours and narratives such as induction rituals (Obholzer and Roberts 1994). Induction rituals, of varying forms, have been common currency in veterinary colleges and societies and set an expectation of how to fit in; in my student years, that was to ‘work hard and play hard’. Roder and May (2017), examining the ‘hidden curriculum’ of one veterinary school, suggest that as students come closer to being qualified veterinary surgeons, some see professional detachment as a quality to be cultivated, indicating the role this hidden curriculum plays in forging identity and, arguably, supressing human connection. Personal narrative and group ritual can (temporarily, at least) reconcile the irreconcilable and forge a professional identity withstands the paradoxical aspects of veterinary work but may come at a cost of ‘loss of self’.

That is not to suggest that all veterinary professionals are clones. That would be a naïve oversimplification. There is, however, a veterinary professional identity, which some wear more lightly than others. This can be a source of comfort, belonging, and protection but can, for some, and at some times, sit very heavily on the shoulders, particularly where that identity is dissonant with current experience (Armitage‐Chan 2019). Shedding the veterinary professional identity temporarily or permanently, even if you want to, can be hard. It carries with it trust, respect, and admiration from oneself, family members, colleagues, and society in general. When that identity is tied directly to animal care, moving into other areas of professional life can be hard (Elwood 2019).

5.1.1 The Motivational Needs of Professionals

In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced the concept of a range of humans needs, which act as motivations for action (Maslow 1943). This concept has been regularly presented as a hierarchy, which was not Maslow’s original intention (Table 5.1). Nevertheless, fulfilment of needs is a significant motivator.

Motivations can be intrinsic (from within) or extrinsic (from external forces) (Ryan and Deci 2000). Intrinsic motivations include the satisfaction that comes from doing the task itself and is linked to self‐leadership (Chapter 4). Extrinsic motivations may range from forced compliance to anticipated reward, economic or other (Ryan and Deci 2000).

People who are attracted to (and/or selected by) the professions come with a wide range of dispositions, tastes, needs, and personality types. The social motivators of achievement, affiliation, and power, as described by McClelland (1988), can be used to determine the drivers to work:

… there are a number of characteristics that distinguish people who are attracted to professions such as the law, medicine, public accounting, investment banking, advertising, and most types of consulting. Some of these characteristics include a high need for autonomy; a loathing of anything that feels bureaucratic; a strong desire for collegiality and inclusion, professional credibility; and a greater than average need for a sense of the big picture….The most prominent characteristic of people who are attracted to these professions is that they are significantly overrepresented by the ‘high need for achievement’ personality. (Delong et al. 2007)

Table 5.1 Human needs range from basic physiologic to existential self‐actualisation and may be satisfied by different aspects of professional work.

Source: Adapted from Maslow, A. H. (1943), A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review. doi: 10.1037/h0054346.

Need Satisfier
Basic needs Physiologic Food, water, warmth, rest
Safety Security, safety
Psychological needs Belongingness and love Intimate and social relationships
Esteem Prestige, accomplishment
Self‐fulfilment needs Self‐actualisation Achieving full potential

The high need for achievement personality is common among veterinary professionals, particularly those that self‐select because ‘veterinary medicine is the hardest subject to get into’. This means that they are, as a group, more typically task/achievement‐driven above other attributes (Table 5.2).

5.1.2 Mindsets

Dweck (2016) suggests that we all have ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets (Chapter 3), which can apply to different areas of our lives and there is a tendency to be more ‘fixed’ (e.g. fall back on what is known, be fearful of exploring and failing) when we are in situations of stress and difficulty. Evidence from veterinary students shows that whilst a growth mindset predominates, similar to other populations, a significant proportion have a fixed mindset, and this may be linked with higher anxiety levels (Bostock et al. 2018). A fixed mindset will reduce the ability to adapt to complexity, uncertainty, and change in the workplace, and perhaps is more likely to believe that there is only one ‘right’ way of managing a problem, as outlined in this quote from Argyris (1991):

… because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single‐loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

(Argyris 1991)

In a small study, relatively new graduates in primary care practice, could be broadly divided into two groups: the diagnosis‐focussed for whom professional satisfaction was taken from the exercise of technical skills, achieving a diagnosis and following the specified treatment plan, and the challenge‐focussed, who ‘prioritised technical competence alongside value placed on decision‐making in contextual complexity and managing a challenging environment’ (Armitage‐Chan and May 2018). The challenge‐focussed group seemed to realise identity goals and have better well‐being in that context (Armitage‐Chan and May 2018).

Table 5.2 Profiles of motivation needs in professional work.

Source: Adapted from Delong, T. J., Gabarro, J. J., & Lees, R. J., (2007), When Professionals Have to Lead: A New Model for High Performance, Harvard Business School Press.

Need for achievement Need for affiliation Need for power
Task driven Relations driven Influence driven
Having challenging tasks Interacting with others Influencing others
Competing; striving to be number one Socialising as part of work Leading; providing direction
Achieving task closure Being part of a team or group Building a team
Setting goals and then meeting them Developing friendships and long‐term relationships Shaping the organisation
Getting clear, timely, and actionable feedback Minimising social disruption or disagreements Developing others
Being able to calibrate own performance
Having autonomy
Having control over task parameters
Taking calculated risks

The tendency for behaviours to become fixed, revert, and potentially more damaging when we are in states of stress bears further examination in the next section.

5.1.3 Behavioural Drivers

Veterinary professionals will all have their unique characters, motivations, and ways of facing the world. Many of these can be seen as strengths in relation to particular challenges and circumstances. These attributes can go into overdrive and show up as ‘dark sides’, which may be expressed where there is inadequate support, leadership, motivation, or any circumstance where stress drives us into fight‐flight‐freeze mode and we are more likely to fall back on habitual behaviours that have served us well in the past. This is explored by examining behavioural drivers (Table 5.3) that have obvious links to motivational needs, such as the high need for achievement.

Table 5.3 Behavioural drivers, their strengths, weaknesses, associated fears and targets of criticism.

Source: Adapted from Kahler, T. (1975), Drivers: The key to the process of scripts, Transactional Analysis Bulletin, SAGE Publications 5 (3): 280–284. doi: 10.1177/036215377500500318; and Tudor, K. (2008), “Take It”: A sixth driver, Transactional Analysis Journal, SAGE Publications Inc. 38 (1): 43–57. doi: 10.1177/036215370803800107. [You can assess you behavioural drivers using the questionnaire in Appendix I]

Behavioural driver Positives Negatives Fears ‘Dark side’
Be perfect Perfection
High standards
Attention to detail
Delegation difficult
Trust difficult
Critical of self and others
Low standards
Failure to achieve
Loss of control
Please others Good team member
Encourage harmony
Fear of upsetting others
Lack of assertion
Take on other people’s issues
Being ignored
Being criticised
Being rejected
Unable to say no
Helping others feel better
Hurry up Fast worker
Respond to short deadlines
Enjoys being busy
Makes mistakes in haste
Speaks for others
Time to think
Having nothing to do
Be strong Calm under pressure
Logical in a crisis
Emotionally detached
Problem solver
Hard to admit weakness/emotion
Hides difficulties
Fear of rejection through appearing weak Unconcerned
Try hard Lots of effort
Broad outlook
Try rather than achieve
Make big tasks out of small
Fear of criticism for not trying
Being irresponsible
Take on too much
‘I’ll show you’ fits
Take it Inventive
Aims high
Take for themselves
Take advantage of others
Poor negotiator
Unable to trust others
Want immediate reward
Careless of relationships

5.1.4 Is There a Veterinary Professional Profile?

When considering needs and drivers, it is critical to realise that these concepts are a only useful, and simple, model. An individual will have a subtle blend of needs and drivers and will behave in their own way, influenced not only by their inherent traits, development, and experience, but also their mood, recent lifestyle, the current circumstance, and environment (Figure 5.2). And even their access to, and intake of, caffeine!

Extensive examinations of personality traits, motivational needs, and behavioural drivers associated with the veterinary professions, and definitions of the veterinary (and veterinary nurse) professional identities are lacking (Armitage‐Chan et al. 2016). It is reasonable to apply some experience and understanding and assume there are similarities to other healthcare professions. Over and above the high need for achievement generally seen in all professions, the veterinary professions might be expected to be associated with ‘Be Perfect’, ‘Please Others’, and ‘Try Hard’ drivers, which might lead to perfectionism, conscientiousness, and conflict avoidance behaviours.

There appear be some differences between the veterinary and the veterinary nursing professions. When asked what were the ‘best things’ about their profession, there was a greater emphasis on ‘Challenge/stimulus’ in the veterinary profession compared to ‘Making a difference’ in the veterinary nursing profession (Figure 5.3). ‘Making a difference’ was, nevertheless, ranked highly in veterinary surgeons suggesting that, in both groups of veterinary professionals, doing good (an ‘achievement’) is a significant motivational force.

5.1.5 The Price of Failure

Given that there is a patient involved and it often is a matter of life or death, the price of failure can be high both for the patient and the ‘second victim’, the healthcare professional. This cost can be financial and/or psychological and decisions made are often irreversible. It is not surprising, therefore, that perfectionistic tendencies, a commitment to continued improvement, and a tendency to focus on the negatives, including ‘blaming’ (themselves, colleagues, seniors, clients, the system, etc.) during or following an event are common in the veterinary professions.

Schematic illustration of the top three ‘best things’ about working in the veterinary and veterinary nursing profession.

Figure 5.3 The top three ‘best things’ about working in the veterinary (VS) and veterinary nursing (VN) professions.

Source: Adapted from Robinson, D., Edwards, M., Akehurst, G., et al. (2019a), The 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Nurse Profession A Report for the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Institute for Employment Studies, Brighton, UK, Institute for Employment Studies; and Robinson, D., Edwards, M., Mason, B., et al. (2019b), The 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Profession – A Report for the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Brighton, UK, Institute for Employment Studies (November).

Schematic illustration of veterinary professionals will find themselves constantly balancing a number of potentially conflicting pulls.

Figure 5.2 Veterinary professionals (VP) will find themselves constantly balancing a number of potentially conflicting pulls. It can be a source of considerable stress when they are unable to achieve a balance.

For veterinary professionals, the responsibility of having ‘the animal under your care’, as well concern for the emotional and financial wellbeing of the owner/client and the compromises imposed on patient care by the clients budget, is a powerful driver of behaviours and may be used to excuse unhealthy and damaging behaviours. This quote from Prerana Issar, head of People NHS England, illustrates this issue in human medicine: ‘Sometimes the primacy of the patient is causing people to sacrifice their own well‐being and the well‐being of their colleagues’ (Compassionate and inclusive leadership, The King’s Fund 2019).

Using the OCEAN inventory of personality types (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), applied to veterinary surgeons in practice in the United Kingdom, higher than average levels of neuroticism were indicated (Dawson and Thompson 2017). This trait is associated with a tendency towards anxiety, depression, self‐doubt, and other negative feelings and was associated with increased levels of occupational stress. It might be expected to be enhanced in complex, imperfect, ‘wicked’ contexts.

Nov 6, 2022 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Veterinary Professionals and Leadership
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