There comes a time in every mentee’s journey when their clinical decision-making or professional style differs from their mentor or practice owner’s methods and techniques. And despite the initial sense of awkwardness or guilt that sometimes accompanies disagreement, this step is a good and welcome evolution of the learning process!
As a mentee, knowing how to confidently and diplomatically disagree can help you grow as a veterinarian and hone your personal style, while preserving the relationships that helped you reach this point.
Note: This article addresses differences in patient care, not medical errors or potentially harmful mistakes, which you should address immediately with your direct supervisor.
A bump in the road: Why you and your mentor may disagree
During your early clinic days, your mentor serves as a model for how things are done in your new practice. Emulating and adopting their ways and methods helps you create a routine and rhythm as you find your place in the practice and build your confidence with patients, clients, and team members—all under the safe umbrella of your mentor’s style.
But over time, you’ll develop your own style and will likely want to make different choices (i.e., drug doses, less-stressful restraint methods, or incorporating shared decision-making). For some mentees, their desire to depart from their mentor’s teachings can lead to internal conflict and a sense of guilt.
Rest assured, these growing pains are normal and should be welcomed and celebrated. The desire to make your own decisions is driven by positive factors including:
- Increased independence — As you depend less on your mentor, you have more autonomy and ownership of your cases, which creates a sense of empowerment and motivation.
- Finding a personal style — Mentorship is not about being a carbon copy of your mentor’s professional style, but finding and refining your own style as you learn.
- A wealth of information — Modern veterinary teams are overwhelmed and understaffed and, unlike you, may not be aware of the latest publications or research.
- Generational gaps or differences in training — Your mentor’s veterinary school experience was most likely vastly different from yours! This also applies to credentialed veterinary technicians who undergo different programming and testing to achieve certification.
Although it can feel awkward and uncomfortable the first time you disagree with your mentor, approaching the situation as an indicator of growth—not rebellion—can help you build confidence, accelerate your learning, and allow you to experience greater satisfaction in your veterinary career. Alternatively, choosing to ignore these differences and work in a style that doesn’t suit your preferences, knowledge, or personal experience may leave you frustrated and dissatisfied.
Tread lightly: Why tact is crucial in workplace disagreements
Tactfully managed disagreements can be excellent learning opportunities for everyone involved and indicate a healthy and productive mentorship relationship.
Remember, you’re not specifying right or wrong, but proposing an alternative solution. This small shift in how you think about disagreement may diffuse some of the tension you feel and help you approach the matter with more confidence and openness.
Before speaking up or initiating a conversation, remember that preserving the mentor-mentee relationship is critical. Although you are growing as a veterinary professional, you likely still need your mentor’s input and guidance. Similarly, disagreements with veterinary technicians or other team members should be handled thoughtfully to avoid unintentionally creating a rift, which may grow to include the entire support staff.
Action plan: What to do when you disagree with your mentor
Respectfully disagreeing with your mentor is part of owning your mentorship experience. As such, it’s up to you to address the situation. Approach the situation as a conversation, not a confrontation, that includes:
- Consideration for time, place, and communication style — Like any other concern or question, there is a right time and place for addressing disagreements. Revisit your previously agreed-upon communication style and feedback methods and respect your mentor’s preferences. This ensures your mentor does not wrongly perceive you as confrontational or argumentative and gives them time to consider your position and your progress before responding.
- Lead with gratitude — Express appreciation for your mentor’s efforts and describe how they have impacted your development. This can help them see your disagreement as a sign of self-directed learning, not contention.
- Be humble, but assertive — Assertiveness is not the same as aggressiveness. It’s OK to respectfully disagree with your mentor, but if they resist, ask if they would be open to a shared solution or a compromise.
- Reinforce your position with data or literature — If relevant, provide journal articles or studies to help your mentor understand your position.
- Suggest revisiting the mentorship contract or agreement — As your mentorship needs evolve, so should the mentorship agreement. Invite your mentor to meet with you to review and update the mentorship agreement so that it matches your current abilities and learning goals and the changing definition of the mentor-mentee relationship. This clarity will help avoid future friction and ensure both parties benefit.
- Understand that this evolution may also be challenging for your mentor! — Much like parents, new and less-experienced mentors may find that letting go of their mentees and trusting their judgment is difficult. Show your mentor some grace—recognize that the issue is not control or micromanagement, but a misunderstanding about the mentee-mentor journey.
Action plan: What to do when you disagree with the support staff
Before addressing a disagreement with a veterinary technician or other staff member, keep in mind that they are likely following the veterinarians’ or practice managers’ orders or protocols. Or, they may have acquired a habit or style that you’d like to change out of necessity (e.g., short staffing), which then became the standard. Also, teams who don’t receive regular continuing education or training opportunities simply may not know a better way.
Protect your relationship with the veterinary team with acts of appreciation, including:
- Recognition and reassurance — Be sensitive to the fact that support staff may consider that you are questioning their skills and expertise. Explain that their way isn’t wrong or harmful, but your way may be more beneficial, efficient, or effective.
- Carefully explaining the benefits — Telling the team why you prefer your way, including the benefits for the patient, client, or team, can help staff be more receptive and more likely to accommodate your change requests.
- Offering to demonstrate or teach — When given the opportunity, most veterinary technicians and assistants are eager to learn and improve their skills. Information-sharing and empowerment can help you achieve your solution, increase technician utilization, enhance practice efficiency, and improve patient care.
If you find yourself disagreeing with your mentor or coworker’s approach, don’t ignore or repress your desire for an alternative way. Instead, embrace these differences in style, opinion, and preference as an indicator of your progress and development as a veterinarian, and a successful mentorship relationship!
Are you ready for more practical tips on navigating the peaks and valleys of your first year in practice, or a structured mentorship for your practice or corporate group’s newest associates? Check out Ready, Vet, Go Veterinary Mentorship for new and recent veterinary graduates.