Beware of the Triangulation Zone
Your hygienist talks to you privately about another employee, also a hygienist. She tells you her co-worker isn't cleaning up 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!
While people often suggest that venting is good for the soul, it is actually not very productive. Venting to someone about a third person is simply an avoidance technique that creates a relationship triangle, or triangulation.
Triangulation is a term that is most commonly used to express a situation in which one person refuses to talk directly with another person but 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.
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. Wanting everyone to get along and/or being afraid of hurting someone, these “feeling-based” people side-step 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 the team is lacking in trust. Without trust, employees are afraid to communicate directly with each other about disagreements. They engage in this 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 alright, even helpful, to acknowledge the emotional impact. For example, to the employee in the above example, you might say, “I know it’s stressful when we have such a busy day and you don’t feel like you have help.” Validating the feelings behind the complaint is good. It lets the employee know that you understand - 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 because these could seem reasonable and justified. Here is where the buck stops - with you! Communicate your expectations so the employee understands what they are to do.
For the hygienist who complains about her co-worker, spend a couple of minutes talking about the details of her frustration. The remaining time is devoted to goal setting. 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 but a coach on the sidelines.
As the Dental Leader, one of your most important jobs is to develop your employees. 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 the discomfort you enable your team to move to higher levels of productivity and profitability. Normalize conflict and help them to learn constructive ways of resolving 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 an investment of time, but it will pay big dividends…and keep you out of the triangle trap.
To enhance your leadership skills or host a team building event, contact Dr. Haller at email@example.com.
Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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