Heal your fractured veterinary team


Constant conflict creates a wedge between you and your co-workers and shatters teamwork. Learn to fill in the crevices you've created and repair your broken team.

Perhaps conflict strikes like lightning at your practice, with sudden flashes that scorch the earth, blinding you and your co-workers to the tasks at hand. Maybe it begins as a slow simmer of resentment, bubbling up through the cracks as snarky comebacks or silent glares that eventually boil over to lay waste to the entire practice.

While the details of your conflict might differ from practice to practice, the tools are the same. There are three common forms of conflict:

1. Leadership conflict. These confrontations often occur over issues of authority—who's in charge or possesses the power.

2. Operational conflict. This conflict crops up in practices when everyone isn't on the same page about practice operations.

3. Interpersonal conflict. In these cases, personalities clash.

Let's look at examples of each and discuss whether these busted teams can be repaired.

Fractured leadership

Beth has been the manager for We Care Animal Hospital for several years. Dr. Cares delegates human resources and financial responsibilities to Beth, but when the conflict involves a favored team member who broke a practice policy, Dr. Cares intervenes, undermining Beth's authority with the team.

The prognosis when the conflict involves issues of power is fair to good. It's fixable if lines are drawn. The owner may want the manager to take charge, but he needs to set boundaries so he's not undermining or avoiding issues with Beth.

Conflict can occur at different levels of leadership in the practice—for example, disagreements between the practice manager and lead technician or head receptionist. A lack of clear boundaries creates the conflict.

This type of conflict only becomes difficult to fix when one person is insecure or feels threatened by changes when you establish new leadership roles. To manage this conflict successfully, you must possess communication skills to create conversations between the leader and the team member so both team members possess a clear idea of the practice's vision and goals. If those elements aren't in place and a power struggle occurs, then people begin to fight with one another instead of working together to accomplish tasks. Eventually in a power struggle one person can pull the, "I'm in charge, so I win" card, and this is the beginning of the end of a work relationship.

What to do: Talk with the practice owner and draw lines about who's responsible for tasks. Then the practice owner must practice stepping aside. Work together to develop a proper mission statement, practice vision, and values you live by. If your boss can't stick to boundaries, it may be time to move on.

Shattered operations

Lisa has worked at All Pets Animal Hospital longer than any other technician. Without a written organizational chart to guide her, she cherry picks the choicest jobs for herself and refuses to teach others how to handle certain tasks, such as talking to sales representatives, because, she says, "I'm the only one who gets the good deals."

In unhealthy work cultures, long-term employees may withhold information. These team members want to feel important and stay close to the source of power. This often happens when roles and responsibilities aren't clearly defined.

This type of conflict can also emerge as cliques—for example, front- and back-office team members who point fingers and shift blame when Sarge doesn't go home with the prescription Mrs. Spender purchased, or Fluffy isn't groomed when Mr. Worries arrives to pick her up at the scheduled time.

The prognosis for operational conflict is good, if you can build or repair the systems team members need and teach your colleagues the communication basics. For example, a key component starts with learning to speak in first person with "I" language. This also includes learning to describe another person's behaviors rather than using character assassination or complaining about personality. (See "How to use personality tests".) Remember, when you speak about the person as the problem, you derail communication.

How to use personality tests

Try this: Describe the person's behavior you'd like to influence rather than the person. Instead of, "Lisa, you're a real bully. You think you're hot stuff, and you won't share the important jobs," try, "Lisa, I appreciate that you're very good at managing inventory, and I would like to learn from you so I can help out when you're busy."

It takes a while to build this skill set, but when you do, troubleshooting operational issues becomes very easy. It's just about communicating the right way.

What to do: If you approach others with an "I" conversation and your team members aren't receptive, you need to explore whether your team is conflict competent. If the answer is "no," you have two choices: work with your practice leaders to develop a conflict competent team or move on to another practice.

Broken relationships

Melody is a straight-shooter. Her blunt approach is a source of personal pride. But co-worker Amy feels terrorized by the word bombs Melody drops, and when she has to communicate with Melody, the conversations often end in tears and accusations.

Interpersonal conflict is sometimes described as, "We just don't get along." This type of culture is impossible to fix unless you create a conflict-competent culture.

What to do: A good first step is to discuss behaviors. When you talk about conflicts regularly at team meetings, you can start to identify some of the communication missteps you make. This means that your team talks about conflict regularly, practices conflict conversations, and role-plays situations. (See "Team meeting in a virtual box" on page 15 for more tools.)

Managers can uncover the chasms in your team using 360-degree peer reviews and cultural surveys. For example, at annual reviews, ask team members about their experiences in practice, and don't be afraid to delve into issues of conflict. Eliciting specific information about conflicts will help you identify the types of conflicts you face—leadership, operational, or interpersonal—and develop a plain to improve your team's competence. When you recognize you helped build the breach, you're ready to begin filling that chasm with positive communication techniques.

Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, is owner of McVey Management Solutions. He is also a member of the Firstline Editorial Advisory Board.

Team meeting in a Virtual BOX

Learn to tackle tough conversations with free team training at dvm360.com/teammeeting. You'll find critical tools, including sample rules of conduct for communication, tools to role-play tough talks, and activities to practice at your next team meeting.

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