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Sustaining Team Motivation: Finding Each Veterinary Team Member’s Why

Debbie Boone, CCS, CVPM, 2 Manage Vets Consulting, Gibsonville, North Carolina

August 2018|Peer Reviewed

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Sustaining Team Motivation: Finding Each Veterinary Team Member’s <em>Why</em>

Small children are known for asking Why? Understanding the “why” behind what we do is a fundamental human need,1 yet employees are often given a set of rules and a to-do list with no more reason than Because I said so. This type of leadership will fail to motivate the veterinary team.

Many team members gravitated to veterinary medicine because of a love of and concern for animals and their wellbeing, but the reality of veterinary medicine is often unlike author James Herriot’s novels; instead, it is often harsh—patients who do not respond to treatment, clients who do not appreciate or follow advice, and team members who drag others down instead of support them.

How can motivation be kept alive under these difficult circumstances? By using emotional reactions (eg, motivation, inspiration, passion) to find long-term purpose.

“It’s when that emotional feeling goes deeper than insecurity or uncertainty or dreams that the emotional reaction aligns with how we view ourselves. It is at this point that behavior moves from being motivated to inspired. When we are inspired, the decisions we make have more to do with who we are and less to do with the companies or products we buy.”—S Sinek2 

  • Motivation is something (eg, a need, desire) that causes a person to act.3

Companies often try to motivate team members with incentives (eg, bonuses).4 However, companies find incentives do not always accomplish the desired goals. Team members may be temporarily excited or more passionate about their jobs because of the bonus, but after some time they become complacent and fall back into former work patterns. They do not truly care why they are offering specific patient services because such incentives are manipulative tools (eg, retailers’ discounts, special sales) that have a temporary effect and likely are quickly forgotten.

In fact, studies show that people will work harder as a volunteer for a cause they believe is important than they will at a job where they work just to collect a paycheck.5

Showing team members how their work embodies their self-perception as an “animal person” or a “provider of an important need” supports their craving for purposeful work based on what they profoundly value. This revelation inspires the team to peak performance.

  • Inspiration is an action or power that moves the intellect or emotions.6

Kennel attendants are vital to the positive image of the hospital's husbandry of patients. This position is better described as a “pet hospitality specialist” with the purpose of providing comfort, safety, and nourishment to animals who are away from home in a strange environment with new smells and unknown people. This job description inspires the team to use their core love of animals to soothe and support hospitalized pets, which is more meaningful than mopping the floor. The perspective changes and the purpose of the work is clarified.

Building Structure

  • Psychologically, people want structure. Structure actually lends itself to creativity and motivation by providing clarity of the expectations and boundaries that frame the channels teams and individual team members are asked to navigate daily.

SOURCE: Benchmarks 2016: A Study of Well-Managed Practices. Columbus, OH: WTA Veterinary Consultants and Advanstar Publishing; 2016:60.

When team members are inspired, understanding the difference between passion and purpose is the key to motivation.

When people are purpose driven, their work is about their deep values and how they see themselves in the scheme of life. Purpose-driven team members will promote a service (eg, regular dental cleanings) because they feel the service will enhance patients’ wellbeing and align with the reason they became veterinary professionals.

  • Passion, which is based on emotion, is volatile and burns brightly but can also burn out rapidly when things get tough. For example, many people are passionate about music, but when practice gets difficult or boring they quit and move on to the next thing. Passion tends to pull people out of stasis into action.
  • Purpose is the “why.” Purpose is an internal push that drives people forward when difficulties arise because they believe they are creating value beyond themselves and helping others. Purpose aligns with a person’s core values and what he or she believes about him- or herself. Purpose is a person’s crusade. For example, many veterinary team members use vacation time to volunteer their skills in clinics in impoverished areas that provide vaccinations and spay and neuter surgeries. They work long hours in adverse conditions with limited equipment. Why? Because their personal values compel them to serve these animals. The work fulfills their purpose.

Meaning at Work

“Organizations who wish to prosper will focus more time on meaning at work, have an organizational purpose and contribution which gives people a sense of satisfaction, and a genuine feeling that they are making the world a better place.”—Karl Moore5

A mission statement is the affirmation of the practice’s purpose and defines the services offered. The statement should focus on a practice culture that will give team members satisfaction and meaning; clearly express what the practice sees as its duty to the team, clients, and patients; and inspire team members to always perform at their best.

The Veterinarian’s Oath

All veterinarians accept this mission when they graduate. Every practice should have its own, individual mission along these lines.

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine,

I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge 

and skills for the benefit of society through the 

protection of animal health and welfare,

the prevention and relief of animal suffering,

the conservation of animal resources,

the promotion of public health,

and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.

Inspiring the Team

“To create pride and joy in the workplace, all employees have the right to be involved in the planning of work that affects them.”—Ritz Carlton Leadership Training 7

The Hawthorn Effect8 states that performance improves when a team member feels recognized and valued. Asking the simple question, “What do you think?” can motivate and inspire.

Team members can be motivated in ways large and small (eg, bonuses, gift cards, special parking spots, thank-yous), but an inspired team supports the mission and is self-sustaining. This does not mean dedicated team members do not deserve external rewards—it means team members who are committed to the “why,” as set out in the mission statement, find that achieving success is self-rewarding. 

To inspire their teams, leaders should recognize all team member accomplishments that move the mission and the practice forward, remove barriers to success (eg, toxic team members, abusive clients, micromanaging supervisors), involve team members in planning, and create new and better ways to accomplish goals.


Team members’ personal core values must align with the practice’s core values. The practice mission needs to be clear and held up as the team’s guiding light. Leaders must consistently recognize and reward team member efforts. The practice culture should be purposeful and fulfill the need for a contribution to the greater good. Leaders must work to inspire and help team members find their “why.”

1 Create a mission statement that clearly defines the purpose of the practice and helps team members understand their purpose

2 Remove barriers to success and recognize those team members who are aligned with the practice’s mission statement.

3 Involve team members in planning and decision-making about the work and motivate them regularly.


For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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