How does your team handle conflict?

How does your team handle conflict?

Aug 01, 2007

Working at a practice is like growing up in a big family: no matter how huge the habitat, you're never alone. With such little personal space, conflicts can heat up fast. But a little effort can take the work out of working together well.

Figure 1
Whether your practice's common conflicts are silly or serious, miniscule or monumental, the quality of your work environment affects the frequency of these flare-ups, says Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a management coach, recruiter, and educator with Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich. And since each team member influences your atmosphere, each one has the power to positively change it.

Prevention is the best cure

A positive, supportive, and stable work environment solves many conflicts before they start, says Gair. This type of atmosphere allows team members to relax and focus on their job responsibilities. It also establishes a base level of respect and camaraderie between co-workers. Teams in this environment behave more like friends—and may actually be friends—and as a result, they're more likely to respond to each other with patience and kindness.

"If my practice promotes a positive, supportive environment, I believe in myself and I believe in my co-workers. I trust their capabilities, I know they support me, and I know they're working to be the best people they can be," Gair says. "When mistakes and miscommunications occur, we're all more likely to give the benefit of the doubt."

Pam Weakley, a Firstline board member and the practice manager at Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic in Battle Creek, Mich., says creating, adhering to, and communicating your practice's policies reduces everyone's stress. For example, at a large hospital like Dickman Road, with nine doctors and 43 team members, staff scheduling could be a bear. But their process minimizes conflict because it's considerate and fair. Staff members maintain a similar schedule each week, rotate holidays, and know their shift assignments, so they can make changes up to a year in advance.

If your practice has more catfights than a stray dog has fleas, use these strategies to foster a positive environment and minimize pesky conflicts:

  • Offer training for job duties, responsibilities, and conflict resolution.
  • Welcome feedback, and keep an open mind.
  • Keep an open line of communication between managers and team members.
  • Acknowledge all co-workers as important members of your team who deserve your respect.
  • Understand team members' different behavior and communication styles, and use that knowledge to build better working relationships with your co-workers.

Put out the fire

Figure 2
If a conflict breaks out, Weakley doesn't run interference—she asks team members to hash it out among themselves. Gair suggests a similar approach, using an organizational chart as a map to resolution when team members can't find a solution on their own. For example, if a receptionist disagrees with a technician, they should talk one-on-one first. If they're unsuccessful, the receptionist should consult the reception team leader, then practice manager, and finally, the owner, attempting to resolve the issue. And each manager asks, "Have you tried to work it out yourselves?" before she gets involved.

"With a little effort, you can make your practice a more enjoyable place," Gair says. "Name one team member who doesn't want to see that happen."