5 Signs of a Dysfunctional Veterinary Team

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Team members who work on a positive team are creative and loyal, produce more, and feel satisfied and successful.1 Those who feel supported, valued, and heard respond with commitment and dedication to their work and the team.

Unfortunately, veterinary medicine is not free of dysfunctional teams. Such teams not only impact the individual members but also affect the practice culture and climate, which can influence the client and patient experience. Addressing challenges head-on helps transform a struggling team into one that is highly productive and satisfied.

Patrick Lencioni, author of the best-selling The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says, “Successful teamwork is not about mastering subtle, sophisticated theories, but rather about combining common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.”2

Here are 5 common signs of a dysfunctional team: 

Working in Silos


  • In-Group Bias (ie, an evaluation of one’s own group as better than others3): Team members who do not work at the front desk criticize an inappropriately scheduled appointment.
  • Task Inflexibility: A team member delegates a 1-minute task instead of completing it herself. 


  • The cause is often the not-my-job mentality, which Lencioni suggests occurs when a team does not have a team-focused, results-based goal.4

Addressing Siloing

  • Set a clear, results-based goal for the whole team (eg, increasing client retention by 50% this year). Show team members how they contribute to reaching the goal.
  • Cross-train team members to make their jobs more interesting and improve team flexibility.5 

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Blind Agreement


  • Unilateral Decision- Making: Team members trust the veterinarian knows best and do not question any suspected mistakes or poor choices. 
  • Groupthink (ie, the tendency of a decision-making group to filter out undesirable input so a consensus may be reached, especially if it is in line with the leader’s viewpoint6): Every team member agrees with a new policy and no one asks questions or raises concerns or objections. 


  • Teams without trust cannot be vulnerable enough to share their real thoughts, feelings, and boundaries, which can lead to blind agreement, according to Lencioni.7
  • Team members may fall into blind agreement when the team’s power differentials make it difficult to challenge authority.8

Addressing Blind Agreement 

  • Take the Mayo Clinic’s approach to team medicine and allow every team member contributing to a patient’s care to provide feedback and suggestions.9 
  • Use checklists to ensure the whole team is adhering to practice policies.8
  • Appoint a devil’s advocate to prevent groupthink and premature or faulty decision-making.10 Conflict is necessary to build a healthy practice team and helps team members make good ethical decisions, test their assumptions against reality, and consider multiple options.
  • Establish open-door policies and create spaces (eg, team-directed meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes) where team members feel safe to offer opinions.11

Benchmarks Improving Team Satisfaction: Communication is No. 1

In 2016, Well-Managed Practices (WellMP) found:

Associate veterinarians and team members considered improved communication the one change that most positively impacts the practice and job satisfaction.

Source: Expenses. Benchmarks 2016. Columbus, OH: WTA Veterinary Consultants & Veterinary Economics; 2016:63-65.




  • Every Case Is an Emergency: The whole team always works through the lunch break.
  • Never Saying No: A team member takes on extra shifts and works late frequently, no matter the personal cost. 


  • “[Veterinarians] appear to have an inherent difficulty saying no to others,”12 said psychologist Kathleen Ayl, who suggests this difficulty may be related to the values of caring that led them into the profession in the first place.
  • Veterinary caretakers find setting reasonable personal and professional boundaries difficult because of the compassion and perfectionism that made them successful during their training and early work in the profession.12 

Addressing Exhaustion

  • Prepare for predictable heavy demand by analyzing and adjusting workflow to help prevent exhaustion.13
  • Help team members who have trouble saying No set reasonable personal and professional boundaries.14 
  • Learn to recognize signs of potential distress in team members and help them avoid stressful situations.15,16

Benchmarks Improving Team Satisfaction: 3 More Ways

1 Provide benefits (eg, bonuses, break rooms, thank-you cards) that recognize team members and combat exhaustion.

2 Remove toxic team members and increase staffing levels.

3 Involve team members in practice decisions.

Source: Expenses. Benchmarks 2016. Columbus, OH: WTA Veterinary Consultants & Veterinary Economics; 2016:53.





  • Stalled Ideas: One team member shares new ideas, but her teammates do not help institute the ideas and nothing happens.
  • Treading Water: The practice stays essentially the same and some team members leave because they have no opportunity for growth.


  • Individual team members are often fearful because of previous failed attempts to make changes, and they may be unmotivated to institute new ideas.17
  • When the benefits of or needs for change are not communicated effectively, powerful teammates may not buy into change, leading to stalled ideas.17 

Addressing Stagnation

  • Provide team members with forums where they can discuss ideas and how the ideas fit into the practice’s overall mission.
  • Be sure all team members have opportunities for professional growth. 

From the Top Down

A positive, collaborative culture starts at the top. WellMP owners were asked to respond to the statement, “I network, function as a team member and bring people together, and still stay focused. I am emotionally capable in any situation.” Their levels of agreement were:

Source: Expenses. Benchmarks 2016. Columbus, OH: WTA Veterinary Consultants & Veterinary Economics; 2016:57.




  • Physical Aggression: An angry team member throws things across the room.18
  • Relational or Verbal Aggression: A team member persists in correcting teammates in front of clients.19 


  • Tensions arising from a lack of trust and fear of conflict can cause aggression.20
  • Aggression can become an outlet for unresolved conflict.

Addressing Aggression

  • Provide constructive venues where team members can vent concerns (eg, team meetings, private conflict mediation), and share resources on workplace violence prevention.21
  • Establish no-tolerance practice policies for harassment and abuse.


Like symptoms of a disease, these behaviors are signs of deeper issues. The underlying problems should be identified and addressed to heal the practice and help team members thrive. 

“Ironically, teams succeed because they are exceedingly human,” Lencioni says. “By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make teamwork so elusive.”2

1If the team displays any of these dysfunctional behaviors, take action and look for deeper issues as quickly as possible.

2Ask every team member caring for a patient to provide feedback and suggestions about the animal's care.

References and author information Show
  1. Seppala E. Positive teams are more productive. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/03/positive-teams-are-more-productive. Published March 18, 2015. Accessed December 15, 2016.
  2. Book summary: the five dysfunctions of a team. Talent Square. https://www.talentsquare.com/blog/book-summary-the-five-dysfunctions-of-a-team. Published November 7, 2015. Accessed December 1, 2016.
  3. Gerrig RJ, Zimbardo PG. Glossary of psychological terms. In: Gerrig RJ, Zimbardo PG, eds. Psychology and Life. 16th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon; 2001.
  4. Lencioni P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2002:105-150.
  5. Donnelly A. Workplace efficiency: it takes a team. Veterinary Team Brief. 2015;3(3):37-39.
  6. Glossary of Psychological Terms. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/research/action/glossary.aspx?tab=7. Accessed December 2016.
  7. Lencioni P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2002:45-48.
  8. Gawande A. The Checklist Manifesto. New York, NY: Picador; 2010:38.
  9. Berry LL, Seltman KD. Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2008:59.
  10. Dattner B. Preventing “groupthink.” Take your team off autopilot. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/credit-and-blame-work/ 201104/preventing-groupthink. Published April 20, 2011. Accessed October 2, 2016.
  11. Dobbs K. Creating an open door policy. Veterinary Team Brief. 2016;4(3):29-32.
  12. Ayl K. When Helping Hurts. Lakewood, CO: AAHA Press; 2013:22-23.
  13. Keiser S. Scheduling appointments to make the day flow smoothly. Veterinary Team Brief. 2016;4(5):43-46.
  14. Hunter L, Shaw JR. The colleague who can’t say no. Veterinary Team Brief. 2014;2(6):34-35.
  15. Lee JA. The impaired veterinarian: recognizing depression and possible suicide. Veterinary Team Brief. 2013;1(2):12-13.
  16. Hunter LH, Shaw JR. The unmotivated team member: what is lacking? Veterinary Team Brief. 2015;3(2):10-12.
  17. Kotter J. Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press; 1996:4-17.
  18. Smither S. Violence in veterinary practices. Veterinary Team Brief. 2015;3(4):51-58.
  19. Lee J. Bullying and aggression in the veterinary profession. Veterinary Team Brief. 2013;1(5):48-49.
  20. Lencioni P. Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2002:91-93.
  21. Safety and health topics: workplace violence. US Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence. Accessed October 2, 2016.

Cyndie Courtney

DVM VetChangesWorld.com

Cyndie Courtney, DVM, is a practicing associate veterinarian, recovering toxic team member, founder of VetChangesWorld.com, and recent 2015-2016 AVMA Future Leader who helped create a national veterinary team wellness program. She has an undergraduate business background and speaks and writes on various topics. Her research interests include the impact of burnout and compassion fatigue on interpersonal aggression in organizations. 

FUN FACT: Cyndie is a self-taught fife player and published haiku poet.

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