How to Keep Staff Conflict from Becoming a Crisis in Your Practice

by | Jun 19, 2022

We’ve all had those days when we walk into the office and are greeted with a “fire” to start our day. Not a literal fire, but one that can derail your day, your week, and even your practice if not addressed. The fires I am speaking of are those caused by disagreements between team members. These conflicts can lead to unhappy team members (who may leave), which in turn can affect their interactions with patients and impact the business not only financially, but also damage your practice’s reputation. As managers, we need to pay attention to this discord as it can become a disease that causes team dissension, decreased productivity, cliques within the practice, and increased financial overhead. Did you know that it costs 6-9 months of an employee’s salary to replace them? That can be a big financial hit for a practice, especially if turnover is high. The better alternative (when possible) is to find resolutions and retain good employees.

The two main things that I have seen lead to these disputes are the perceptions of fellow co-workers (perception is reality for people) and miscommunication. If a team member is repeatedly late or slacking off by browsing social media or shopping online and this continues with no action from management, your other team members will start having animosity towards the individual and the company. They will perceive that the policies they have to comply with are not being evenly enforced. The same thing can occur if there is an impression of favoritism of a team member, or if the team member is seen as not pulling their weight (eg. helping fewer patients than their colleagues). In addition, not effectively communicating can be a source of frustration and disagreements.  This not only goes for relaying information about process changes or patient care but also ensuring that your team is actively listening to the details. Resentment is in the eye of the beholder, and these issues don’t usually just solve themselves. It’s up to us as managers and business owners to take control of the situation and facilitate solutions.   

Here’s the truth about conflict. It can’t be completely avoided. Sooner or later, it will pop up in any business. I think you probably know that ignoring these issues is not the way to go, especially if that is what you’ve been doing. The solution lies in creating a culture in your business that helps to minimize misunderstandings, and building an atmosphere where healthy communication is both expected and facilitated.

Set Clear Expectations

The first step is to make sure that your office policies and guidelines are clear, fair, and properly, evenly enforced. For example:

  • Ensure that you have a handbook with guidelines around issues such as tardiness, cell phone usage, etc. that you can reference when needed.
  • Set expectations of job performance and duties by using written Job Descriptions for each position in the practice.

Make sure you lead by example, holding yourself accountable to the same office policies, and not feeding into the office drama. Don’t be afraid to approach situations or infractions head-on, in a timely manner, and with understanding. It is far better to be proactive than reactive; early intervention can prevent escalation and may provide a pathway to resolution without conflict.

Having conversations with team members will help you understand why certain issues are occurring. For instance, if someone is constantly tardy in the morning, you may find out that they are having to stop for the 7:30am train en route to the office.  Then you can offer solutions to help them with this problem, such as leaving 5-10 mins early. Notice I didn’t say “make an exception to policy,” but help the employee develop a strategy to comply with the office policy. This can go a long way with an employee as well as making sure you provide even and fair enforcement of the practice’s standards to reduce any hint of being biased. 

Create an Atmosphere that Encourages Communication

I recommend having an open-door policy to help employees feel comfortable talking with you, being very careful not to share these conversations with anyone except the doctor, and then only if warranted. This will make your team more inclined to discuss things that are bothering them.

Actively seek out communication from your staff. Make sure they are aware that you are available and willing to help with problems. However, you should never allow private conversations with any employee to devolve into gossip or slam sessions. Keep all conversations professional and polite; this will help your staff feel confident about your integrity and build trust.

Encourage Self-Resolution

When an employee comes to you with a problem with a fellow co-worker, have them offer suggestions on ways it can be resolved and encourage them to do this themselves if they feel comfortable. Having them resolve the issue on their own will help them better handle these situations in the future and also help them grow.

Pick Your Battles

There will be times when, as a manager, you’ll have to step in to solve a problem. Make sure, however, that you are picking your battles because if you are trying to solve all disagreements you could be causing more issues. For instance, if you have employees who are fans of competing teams, it could just be a friendly rivalry when they banter back and forth. You may still want to keep an eye on the situation but it might not need any intervention.

When you do get involved, work with the team members to find common ground and help them see they are working toward the same goals, which could be patient care or helping the practice grow. Help them work out a mutual plan of action, agreed upon by all. Make sure to follow up with them every so often to see how things are going.

Conflict in the practice is not easy to deal with but, when handled properly, it can be used as teaching moments to help your employees develop better resolution skills. It also provides a better working environment, increased team morale, and helps you keep good employees. Reducing conflict in the practice is extremely important as it not only can affect your bottom line, it makes a lot of stress for you, leaving less time and energy to focus on managing the practice. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “good employees leave bad managers, not bad companies.” Part of being a good manager is handling conflict correctly, so you can keep happy employees which translates into happy patients and then into a more thriving business.

By Cathy Firman, CPOT, ABOC

An outstanding team player, Cathy is a leader in our Customer Success Team.

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