Conflict: Itís Not the Personalities, Itís the Process
Conflicts among employees within the dental practice are common. However, the much bigger issueis the tendency to avoid conflict. Dental leaders typically see these team dynamics as distracting “drama.” They bury their heads and hope that conflict will just go away. However, by virtue of their position, practice owners are the practice leaders and whether they like it or not, staff look to the leaders to address problems, concerns, and, yes, conflict.
Take the case of “Ellen” in “Dr. Mike’s” office. She has been with the practice for 12 years and has held various positions. Her current role is “floater.” She floats from the front to the back and the back to the front “helping” where she’s needed. Ellen does not have a defined job description because, well, she’s just always been a fixture in Dr. Mike’s office. She was his first employee and has achieved the status of “practically family.” Staff see her as untouchable.
She means well. The patients love her. But the team is always doing clean up after her. If she helps with the schedule, she disregards the daily and weekly goals and just gives patients any appointment time they want. If she is turning over the treatment rooms, she invariably will “forget” this or that key detail. On the surface, it appears these are simple workplace misunderstandings. In actuality, these have become major obstacles to efficiency and productivity. Tensions are rising. The fact that the doctor refuses to give clear direction to Ellen as well as the rest of the staff has created a free-for-all mentality. Dr. Mike cannot figure out why “the ladies” can’t seem to get along.
He doesn’t know how to address the problems, so he continues to ignore them. Tensions surrounding Ellen are spilling over into other areas. The employees take their cue from the doctor and rather than dealing with the issues head on, they try to ignore the problems. But the frustration is manifesting itself in passive aggressive behaviors. They “vent” as they like to call it with one another, engaging in gossip and whisper campaigns instead. Nasty comments and accusations quietly abound.
Eventually, the lid will blow and the damage caused can, in some cases, be irreparable. All the while Dr. Mike is blissfully ignoring that his team is readying for war. He won’t wake up from his delusion until he is in the throes of a serious financial crisis. And he’s well on his way.
In the typical workplace, managers spend anywhere from 25-40% of their time managing conflict. Additionally, employees spend at least three hours a week dealing with conflict. Conflict is extremely expensive and commonly a symptom of dysfunctional practice management systems. Disagreements and misunderstandings are a reality of living and working. Tackling conflict head-on will save you countless headaches, problems, stress, and staff turnover during the course of your career. It will also clue you in to specific management system issues that are directly affecting your productivity and profitability. As the dental leader, your goal is not to make employees like one another but to be able to work together. You need to help them reduce the emotions and get to a resolution.
Follow these strategies for dealing with conflict effectively:
1. Set aside time to directly address matters that are causing conflict. Focus on the issue, not the people. Do not allow gossip or personal attacks. These are a profoundly destructive force in any workplace, but especially in small offices.
2. Establish clear standards for professional office behavior and specific office policies. If the scheduling coordinator is routinely slotting emergency patients incorrectly, assume she/he doesn’t know what you expect. Educate your staff and help them to become more effective.
3. Deal with the issues that cause conflict. Do not make excuses so that you can continue to look the other way. She’s too nice. He’s too argumentative. They’ve been doing it that way forever. They’ll never change.
4. Choose to be positive. Anyone can criticize others and be negative in difficult situations. It’s the leaders and problem solvers who choose to remain positive and constructive.
Pay attention to what the discussions tell you about your systems. Almost without exception, at the root of team conflict is ineffective management systems.
For more information on this topic, visit my blog: The Lighter Side
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