Like a smoldering fire, conflict often begins with a minor spark of disgruntlement. No big deal, right? Everyone has disagreements. And so it is dismissed as inconsequential or not worth the trouble. Slowly the smoke begins to rise, but it is still much easier to disregard than address, after all if you ignore it long enough it will go away … or so you think. Then one day, seemingly without warning, the blaze goes ripping through the practice, and what should have been a minor spat has turned into a firestorm of rage and discontent.
Conflict often is allowed to quietly burn in dental practices. That hushed anger beneath the surface can be sparked by any number of exchanges. It may start with frustration over the employee who consistently fails to provide necessary production reports maintaining that she/he is just too busy with other responsibilities to get to it. The doctor walks away seething, but doesn't call the staff member on it because he/she doesn't know how to challenge the claim.
Or perhaps the schedule is regularly booked incorrectly. The doctor mentions the problem in passing during a staff meeting, but doesn't take the time to explain directly to the employee why proper scheduling is so critical to the practice or provide training to ensure that the problem is resolved. The doctor quietly fumes and is stressed because production is slipping. Or maybe an employee consistently shows up late, and, after watching the office manager look the other way time and again, team members implement their own system of progressive discipline in the form of snide remarks and open hostility.
Conflict typically is rooted in system breakdowns and a general lack of communication - employees do not know who is responsible and accountable for which systems. For example, the hygienist may become frustrated with the business staff because she/he is consistently missing his/her production goals. Yet no one on the business staff has been designated as the person responsible for ensuring that the hygiene schedule is kept full.
Conflict can be minimized significantly when individual team members are given clear information, defined responsibilities, and are held accountable for specific outcomes. Employees must know what is expected of them individually and as a team. They cannot be expected to function effectively or cohesively without clear job descriptions and performance objectives. In addition, they must receive regular ongoing feedback in order to make corrections in systems and continuously improve and grow as contributing members of the team.
Take these steps to manage conflict constructively day-to-day before it burns both the doctor and staff:
- Set aside time to address matters that are causing conflict.
- Focus on systems and what is or is not working in the systems rather than on the people. For example, what steps does the practice need to take to ensure that the schedule is booked correctly to achieve specific production goals.
- Address sources of day-to-day conflict during the daily huddle. For example, if the clinical team wants emergency patients placed at certain times they must tell the scheduling coordinator so that the coordinator is not picking and choosing based on what she/he thinks will work.
- Avoid the urge to react emotionally and judge, criticize, or attack.
- Focus on addressing the issue rather than proving who is right or wrong.
- Focus on the desired outcome for the practice as a whole.
- Establish clear standards for professional office behavior. Do not tolerate destructive personal attacks among team members.
- Establish clear office policies and follow them.
- Take time to better understand each other's personalities and how different personality types communicate.
Certainly, as long as there are people working together there will be conflict. As destructive as conflict can be, if it is managed, it can become a constructive tool in moving the practice and the team that much closer to achieving overall goals and objectives.
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