That moment when you realize your team isn't talking

December 13, 2016
Oriana D. Scislowicz, LVT, PHR
Oriana D. Scislowicz, LVT, PHR

Oriana Scislowicz, LVT, PHR, was a veterinary practice manager for many years before becoming senior HR specialist at Pharmaceutical Product Development.

Managers, are you feeling caught in the middle? Teach your team to stop fighting and start talking with this advice to foster open communication in your veterinary practice.

If there's one thing many employees despise, it's talking to each other. Not casual water cooler chit-chat, but discussing the difficult topics-why Carrie feels she's carrying an unfair workload, or that Beth feels she's been disrespected. As managers, we strive to empower team members to handle these conversations largely on their own first, since they tend to be much more productive without a third party.

When you avoid direct communication …

When team members avoid each other, especially in relatively small work groups, toxicity builds quickly. The scrutinized team member feels "ganged up on," like an outsider. Whether it's her work ethic, performance or behavior that needs improvement, the problem will likely worsen when she feels pushed out.

To add to the toxicity, the frustrated team members who aren't speaking to the outsider are going to need to vent. This is a natural reaction, especially if we let our concerns linger in our minds rather than discussing them directly with the person.

The problem: This venting to others often unintentionally creates more anger and frustration towards the outsider. Newer employees and those who are initially unaffected then begin to see this team member in a different light. This creates an environment where the outsider doesn't stand a chance.

The most common employee conflicts (and how to botch them)

The same employee conflicts tend to reassert themselves regardless of the group, team members' personalities and the work environment. 

So what really gets peoples' goat?

• Work style differences. Sally likes to be constantly moving and busy all day. But Jane prefers to get the work done at a calmer pace. Sally perceives Jane isn't doing an equivalent amount of work, and she feels it's unfair.

• Personality differences. Team members may differ in their humor (for example, sarcastic humor is mistakenly taken in a literal sense), their level of directness and the way they approach conflict. The most common cause of frustration: one team member speaks harshly to another when an issue arises.

• Poor performance or attendance. When fellow team members aren't performing to the established standards, whether it's due to lack of training or disengagement, team members feel frustrated. And they often get angrier when a team member either shows up late regularly or frequently calls out.

In all these scenarios, the most challenging obstacle is to get to open communication about the conflict. Oftentimes, team members vent their concerns to management or their coworkers, form cliques excluding the individual or simply resign themselves to the situation.

While it may seem unnatural and be difficult for team members to have direct conversations, it's important to foster this expectation and explain the benefits of avoiding third-party triangulation. Here's the example I offer my team:  

Say you have a problem with Gillian. Instead of talking to Gillian, you involve your manager. Gillian feels betrayed and alone. She doesn't feel encouraged to improve. If you speak to Gillian, you're more likely to get the results you want. If Gillian wants to improve, she'll respond better to your conversation than she will if the manager "scares" her into improving.

Cultivate an environment of open communication

Managers, it's time to stop doing damage control and start taking preventive measures. Consider these easy ways to encourage workplace communication.

• Hold morning or midday huddles at a regularly defined time. This sets aside time to chat with coworkers about how the day will go (or is going) and discuss any obstacles or issues. Morning huddles can be a good time to discuss any snags from the day before-after everyone has had the evening to cool down.

• Plan regular team meetings, ideally once a month. It may seem like a no-brainer, but in our work environment, it's easy to allow these to lapse. Ask team members open-ended questions and even ask them to present a current issue, then problem-solve together. What you don't want: management entirely leading the meeting and barking off protocols and updates.

• Schedule semi-annual meetings with the sole purpose of allowing team members to exchange opinions on everything from workflow processes to current company morale. This tells team members their voices are being heard and valued, and it encourages them to express their thoughts and concerns in the future.

• Make time for more casual one-on-one meetings. Scheduling regular one-on-one pow-wows with team members allows managers to touch base and ask what's going well and what needs improvement. If there are any interpersonal issues with other team members, you can be address these earlier on rather than letting them fester.

Oriana Scislowicz, BS, LVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and regional manager for CVCA Cardiac Care for Pets.