Save Yourself Time And Headaches—Cut Out The Middle Man
Your hygienist talks to you privately about another employee, also a hygienist. She tells you her coworker isn’t cleaning up quickly enough at the end of the day, and is intentionally slow with charting to avoid helping out. Wanting to fix this quickly, you agree to talk to the other hygienist.
Watch out… You have just entered the triangulation zone! Triangulation is a term that is most commonly used to express a situation in which one person refuses to talk directly to another person and instead gripes to a third person, thereby forcing the third person (in this case, you) to be part of the triangle. No positive outcome will occur. A lot of emotional energy is wasted. Relationship back-biting worsens and practice productivity is sabotaged. And you, the triangulated “middle (wo)man,” is stuck with escalating conflict—and probably a headache.
In my conversations with dentists, I hear about this all the time. Why? Dental offices are largely comprised of people who are oriented toward taking care of others. Their compassionate nature is a plus, until it results in conflict avoidance. Because they want everyone to get along and/or are afraid of hurting someone, these feeling-based people sidestep issues. They often hope that the negativity will just go away on its own.
Be careful that you don’t dismiss this situation as “high school antics” that will blow over. When one of your employees complains to you about someone else’s performance, it’s serious because it means the team is lacking in trust. Without trust, employees are afraid to communicate directly with each other about disagreements. They are unwilling to be vulnerable about their mistakes, fears and behaviors. They engage in a kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time. Without a climate of trust, teams are limited in what they can accomplish, and this impacts your bottom line!
First and foremost, when an employee complains to you about another staff member, do not be too quick to take sides. In all likelihood you only have one perspective, one side of the story. By staying objective you refrain from jumping into action and making a bad situation worse.
It’s all right, even helpful, to acknowledge the emotional impact. For example, to the employee in the above example, you might say, “I know you need to get out of work on time because of child care, and it’s stressful when we have such a busy day.” Validating the feelings behind the complaint is good. It lets the employee know that you understand and that you care about her.
The next thing you need to say is, “Have you spoken to that person yet?” In all likelihood the answer will be no, followed by a string of explanations (i.e. excuses). Be careful not to take sides at this point, because these could seem reasonable and justified.
Here is where the buck stops—with you!
Communicate your expectations so the employee understands what he or she should do.
For the hygienist who complains about her coworker, spend a couple of minutes talking about the details of her frustration. Devote the remaining time to setting goals. She needs to address this directly with her peer and the two of them —NOT YOU—must iron out a clean-up plan. Your job as the practice leader is to coach this hygienist to find her own solution. You can make suggestions, but it’s up to her to fix it. Establish a time frame for this to be completed, perhaps one week. In a follow-up meeting, discuss her progress. If nothing’s been done, explore the obstacles and set another goal.
Here are a few questions that could be helpful in coaching your staff when they complain:
In this way, you guide an employee through a thought process about her own responsibility. You could role play it with her, too. Suggest that she try out what she has practiced with you, then come back and let you know how things are going. In this way, you are not in the middle intervening but rather on the sidelines coaching.
Even the best teams have conflict and it will be uncomfortable from time to time. The tendency is to want to fix things and make the problem go away. However, by showing patience and strength to tolerate discomfort, you enable your team to move to higher levels of productivity and profitability. As the Dental Leader, one of your most important jobs is to develop your employees. Normalize conflict and help them learn constructive ways to resolve their differences.
An empowered team is built on trust and mutual respect. Team-building retreats are an excellent way to establish that foundation. Obviously that takes time away from the office, but it will pay BIG dividends as a result.
Employees should try to resolve their own problems before coming to you. If you don’t like being the middle (wo)man, step aside—but stay on top of the conflict. As the Dental Leader, you can help your staff learn to have adult conversations in the workplace… and save yourself a lot of wasted time and headaches.
Dr. Haller is the Leadership Coach at McKenzie Management. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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