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How to Cultivate a Happier Workplace

The psychological health and safety of all employees should be as important as productivity.

How to Cultivate a Happier Workplace
In teams that demonstrate psychological safety, the members give roughly equal time to one another in meetings and conversations.

Our colleague Dr. Bill Kearley tells the story of how, as a young bovine practitioner, he was introduced to the concept of production medicine while attending his first AABP conference. Production medicine involves veterinarians applying a wide array of knowledge and skills to herd management with the aim of optimizing animal health and welfare, production and business profitability.

As he learned about the importance of applying such an approach to best serve his dairy clients, Bill became fascinated with a simple question: “What accounts for the difference between high-producing dairies and average-producing dairies?” To discover the answer, he conducted field research.

Over several months, Bill visited some of the most successful dairies in California, Idaho and Washington — operations with the highest milk production and quality metrics. What he learned surprised him. The common denominator for success had little to do with fancy barns, state-of-the-art equipment, or innovative approaches to preventive medicine, reproductive health and disease control.

Instead, what Bill consistently observed across all the operations centered on the workplace climate. In general, workplace climate can be assessed through different lenses, such as:

  • The degree of emotional safety in employee relationships.
  • How well employees understand the goals of the business.
  • How the employees’ job responsibilities relate to those goals.
  • The extent to which employees interact well together.

Bill observed that workers at each of the high-producing dairies tended to be long-term employees who:

  • Took pride in their work.
  • Exhibited a sense of ownership and commitment.
  • Worked well together.

It’s More Than Just Trust

In the business world, positive workplace climates correlate directly with productivity and performance, which was consistent with what Bill observed. His conclusion: Happy and motivated dairy employees make for happy and healthy cows. And, of course, we all know that “happy, healthy cows make better milk.”

Organic Valley’s advertising campaign aside, we see a likely connection between optimal milk “flow” states in cows and the state of flow we frequently reference in this column. The connection has everything to do with workplace climate, or more specifically, team climate.

For team members to contribute at the top of their ability, they need to feel safe to respectfully question anyone or anything. They need to feel safe to speak up and offer ideas and to take on tough problems that they might fail to solve.

In teams that demonstrate psychological safety, the members show a high degree of social sensitivity or empathy to each other, and they give roughly equal time to one another in meetings and conversations. No one voice dominates, nor are there any bystanders.

It makes total sense, then, that in an environment characterized by psychological safety, team members are more likely to experience flow. Remember that when you’re in a flow state:

  • You are completely involved and focused on what you are doing.
  • You shut down self-consciousness and negative mind-wandering.
  • You aren’t thinking about any perceived inadequacies or how fast you can “just get this over with.”
  • You find the work intrinsically motivating.
  • You experience increased enjoyment and creativity.

So, what does this all mean for you and your workplace or team climate? How often are you collectively experiencing the benefits of flow? In your veterinary practice or business, do you consider the psychological health and safety of all employees to be as important as productivity? If not, what price are you paying for that oversight?

In recounting his story, Bill agreed that psychological safety and trust lead to happy employees, happy cows and a great bottom line. He also shared that “Workplace climate is not something you measure as much as something you observe, feel and experience.”

With that in mind, here’s what you can do to make a difference.

Go Ahead and Ask

To get a read on how safe your team members feel to offer ideas and learn from mistakes, regularly send this survey designed by Harvard business Professor Dr. Amy Edmondson:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  • Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • My unique skills and talents are valued and utilized when I work with members of this team.

After you receive the survey results, speak with the entire team, posing and discussing questions such as:

  • What is the data telling us?
  • What’s working well? Why?
  • Where are we running into challenges in creating psychological safety?
  • What do we want to do more, better or differently to improve our team climate?

Finally, realize that you have a choice. You can remember that “happy, healthy cows make better milk” and apply the lessons you’ve just learned based on that important insight, or you can risk being an udder failure!

Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only five veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation. Co-columnist Trey Cutler has a law practice focused exclusively on veterinary transactions and veterinary business law matters.