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Conquering team conflict


Use these strategies to address discord before interpersonal issues undermine your business-and your passion for practice.

Does your love of veterinary medicine ever become overwhelmed by a sickening tension that hangs heavy over your practice? Do team meetings unravel into heated gripe fests full of bickering and finger pointing? Does conflict ever discolor your practice's image, hamper productivity, or keep everyone on edge?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you're not alone. Sixty percent of respondents to a VetMedTeam.com survey claimed that conflict between members of their practice team was a problem, and another 28 percent said that while it wasn't currently a problem, it had been at one time. Such an overwhelming majority sends a clear message: Conflict is a serious problem that can cripple an otherwise healthy business.

"When practice teams face off, the resulting tension and conflict can pull a hospital apart," says Dr. Cecelia Soares, MS, MA, a veterinary communication specialist and consultant. Such clashes can undermine your practice's professional appearance, accelerate employee turnover, damage productivity, and make the workday seem like an eternity.

The causes of conflict

Unfortunately, conflict may be inevitable when you bring together a diverse group of people with different work habits, distinct backgrounds, and varying interpersonal skills. Strife can stem from poor communication, gossiping, deficient training, lack of accountability, or co-workers who simply don't work well together. ( for more causes of discord.)

Figure: 1 What's causing the conflict?

Dr. Soares has talked to dozens of practice managers to identify issues that cause division. Common responses included:

  • team members feel insecure

  • team members feel unappreciated

  • team members don't understand or appreciate co-workers' contributions

  • doctors don't follow set policies

  • problems are allowed to linger too long without intervention.

"The fact that conflict exists isn't necessarily a problem. Conflict is inherent when you're building a high-performance team," says Kristin Arnold, president of Quality Process Consultants Inc., in Fairfax, Va. "The problem occurs when a team gets stuck in conflict."

The key to finding resolution is focusing on the root problem, not on the symptoms, she advises. For example, if there's a leader in the practice playing parent, team members may be approaching him or her for resolution instead of taking responsibility for resolving situations themselves. In this case, the leader in the middle may need to learn to facilitate discussions instead of making a decision himself or herself.

"In another situation, you may need to focus on fixing or streamlining a particular process, so everyone has a clear role and knows what to expect," Arnold says. "Or, if there's a personality conflict, you may need to create opportunities for team members to talk about different communication styles and work preferences, so they understand each other better. You want these kinds of communication issues out in the open."

Team building to combat tension

Open the lines of communication

"It's critical to get the issues on the table for discussion," agrees ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D., a management consultant and development coach with Diamond Associates in Santa Clara, Calif. "I fervently believe in setting up an open forum in which everyone can communicate, come to an understanding, and heal the wounds that can occur when there's friction," she says. "Most people try to shove issues under the table and pretend that everything's okay. But when you take that approach, little cliques form—which becomes even more problematic."

Diamond says that when people gather and talk, problems come to the surface, and then everyone can work toward a comfortable solution. While simple in theory, many teams run into problems at this point because employees often don't feel that their supervisors are accessible or interested in listening.

To counteract this perception, work on developing a reputation for being even-tempered and reasonable, says Dr. Soares. "And make it a point to invite constructive criticism. If people feel comfortable raising the issue when they get angry or frustrated, you and your team can defuse the problem before it's disruptive." If people feel uncomfortable approaching each other or a practice supervisor about problems, she says, you're likely to get gossip rather than resolution.

The solution: Give team members an appropriate time to vent and guidelines about how to share problems constructively. You can use a regular team meeting, a special team-building exercise, or a retreat. Just give your employees a chance to get their issues on the table for discussion. ( for tips on team building for a conflict-free practice).

Making work meaningful

Of course, team communication goes more smoothly when your staff members understand their roles, know why the work they do is so important, and appreciate the contributions their co-workers make. Take these steps to lay the foundation for this understanding, cooperation, and collaboration:

1. Offer a strong mission statement, clear job guidelines, and helpful feedback. "It's important to articulate a mission for the practice that everyone feels good about and can rally around," says Diamond. "Regularly revisit your mission, and discuss its importance to the practice. And focus on how important each individual is to the success of the practice. People who see their work as busywork tend to become overly concerned about petty annoyances rather than focusing on self-improvement."

The next step: Make sure team members clearly understand their job responsibilities. "Fuzzy job descriptions cause confusion and can lead to team members stepping on each other's toes," says Dr. Soares. To avoid this turmoil, provide written job descriptions and an employee handbook so everyone knows what work and behavior you expect. (For more, see "Clear Expectations Garner Great Results" on page 60, May 2005.)

quick fact

"Finally, team members need to know where they stand with their supervisor and understand their value to the practice," says Dr. Soares. Provide constant reinforcement and clear feedback, and build staff members' confidence. "When you focus on helping team members feel valued, you head off the risk of your practice becoming a breeding ground for insecurity or discontent," Dr. Soares says.

2. Offer ongoing training. "Cross-train team members on client relations, computer use, telephone courtesy, client check-in, animal restraint, filling prescriptions, cleaning up accidents, and so on," says Dr. Soares. "Cross-training highlights the scope of each person's responsibilities and helps build appreciation for every team member's contributions."

3. Provide a gossip-free workspace. Twenty percent of respondents to a VetMedTeam.com survey listed gossip as the biggest problem among team members. And veterinary consultants agree that malicious rumors can be more divisive than almost any other problem in practice. "Combat gossip by establishing guidelines for resolving conflicts and outlining consequences for not sticking to these rules," says Dr. Soares. "For example, your policy might state that if one team member has a problem with another, he or she may discuss the issue only with that person or a manager. And if you discover someone gossiping, call a spontaneous meeting with the people involved to resolve the issue."

4. Build your team's communication skills. "Communication is the key to conflict resolution and prevention," says Dr. Soares. "The most direct solution is for battling team members to talk about the problem, listen to each other's point of view, offer solutions, and agree on an action plan. If the exchange requires a facilitator, choose a trustworthy supervisor, manager, or doctor with whom everyone feels comfortable."

Finally, encourage everyone to demonstrate that they're really, truly listening. For example, you could teach team members to maintain eye contact, paraphrase a co-worker's concerns, ask clarifying questions, and reflect what they think the person feels.

"Conflict is typically based on feelings," says Diamond. "And feelings can get in the way of good judgment." So let people discuss their feelings and explore differences in perception. Eventually through this communication process, you may come to a solution.

You may still disagree

"Paying more attention to interpersonal skills boosts team members' productivity and minimizes turnover," says Diamond. "Plus, team members need to feel good about what they're doing to communicate that sense of well-being to clients. So focusing on these 'soft' skills benefits the practice in concrete ways."

Still, team harmony doesn't mean that you'll never disagree, stresses Diamond. "Try to separate differences of opinion from the desire to work cooperatively," she says. "It's OK to disagree about a topic; you don't want to disagree with the person."

Of course, not every conflict can be remedied with team building, discussions, and bonding. "Sometimes, you can't fix dysfunctional or psychological mismatches," Arnold says. "In these cases, the doctor may need to make some tough decisions about which team members are critical to the practice."

But in most cases, clear expectations, a hefty dose of respect, and an open forum for discussion can heal fractures. "On a great work team," says Dr. Soares, "co-workers show respect for each other, talk through problems when they arise, and work together to achieve common goals." And what better goal could you and your team work toward than a productive, profitable, and peaceful workplace?

Editor's note: What causes the most conflict within your hospital? And how does your practice team handle this strife? Share your thoughts with other veterinarians and team members at VetMedTeam.com.

The bottom line

To resolve and prevent conflict in your practice:

  • have co-workers discuss problems with a supervisor

  • cross-train employees so everyone appreciates each team member's role

  • cut short any gossiping

  • present an exciting mission statement, clear job expectations, and useful feedback.

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