When the bosses fight


Here you are, stuck in the middle again. It's easy to feel hopeless when you've been gnawed on, chewed up, and spit back out. Use these tips to break free from the tug of war between your bosses.

Are you ducking a crossfire of surgical instruments or hiding in the inventory closet every time the fireworks erupt? Do your managers launch verbal missiles, engage in cold war tactics, and put you squarely in firing range by asking you to choose sides? As an African proverb notes, when the elephants fight, the grass suffers.

Illustration by Jennifer Taylor

Often bosses think team members don't see what's going on, or they're so involved in the conflict, they don't care if those around them suffer. Whether they're owners, managers, or team leaders, when they fight, everyone feels the aftershocks. The team is distracted from the practice's goals. Employee morale spirals downhill, hurting productivity. Some employees take sides, some hide, and others quit their jobs. And these bad feelings trickle down to diminish client and patient care.

So what can you do if the bosses are constantly locking horns at your practice? If your practice has a human resources department, you have someone to step in and stop the head butting. But what about the rest of you? Here's a crash course to restore order and turn the focus back to your patients and clients.

Call a cease-fire

First, decide whether there's truly a problem. Owners, managers, and supervisors may vary in their management styles or take different views. These differences can be good when they provide diverse perspectives and encourage everyone to share ideas, as long as the management team makes decisions and moves forward with one voice. But when excuses are persistent and there's a definite lack of direction, team members are chronically stressed and less productive. Service falters and no one's willing to pitch in when the job gets rough.

At some point in your career, you'll probably work for a boss who lacks the skills of essential personnel management. Let's look at two common—and I hope not too familiar—scenarios. Then we'll explore how you can boost your skills, improve productivity, and thrive—even when the owners arm wrestle, supervisors and managers scream at each another, or your boss slings silence when she doesn't get her way.

Case 1: Your supervisor and her boss don't see eye-to-eye

Susie's boss, Anna, asks her to create life stage handouts for the senior pet wellness kits. But when Susie is halfway done with the project, Anna's boss, Julie, asks to see Susie's work. Julie makes suggestions that aren't in line with what Anna intended and changes the project's direction. These situations occur more and more often and tension soars between the managers.

Fig. 1

Susie has a strong allegiance to Anna, her boss of two years. However, Julie is higher up the practice ladder and can override decisions. Susie believes these two leaders can make her life uncomfortable and jeopardize her career.

Here's what Susie can do:

  • Communicate directly and clearly. Tell each manager what the other has suggested and explain it's difficult and wastes resources to try to satisfy both their requests. Then ask the managers to meet and determine the goals for the project. Ask only the direct supervisor to communicate directions to avoid conflicting messages.

  • Engage a third party. Is there someone else at the practice with authority—perhaps the practice manager or an owner? If an uninvolved leader is available, schedule a meeting to explain the situation. Prepare notes and keep the meeting short and factual. And keep knowledge about or from the meeting private. Handling this situation professionally improves your credibility and the likelihood you'll receive the help you need.

  • Get it in writing. Ask your supervisor to provide written instructions when you suspect the managers may disagree about a task or project. In the absence of written instructions, document your boss's verbal instructions.

Case 2: Two owners are fighting

Practice finances are tight. The partners hardly speak to each other anymore, and when they do, their words drip with condescension and sarcasm or they lob accusations and hurl threats. Team members dive for the foxholes when the verbal bombing begins. No one knows where to turn for help, and some team members are ready to abandon the fort and hightail it to a new practice.

Consider these tips to help weather the storm when the fighting starts:

  • Avoid making personal judgments. We rarely know a person's attitude or opinion, even when we see flashes of emotion or catch a glimpse of the situation. You'll be most helpful if you don't judge the situation or those involved. Instead, focus on how you can help the business and your team.

  • Remain unbiased and don't gossip. Growth and change can cause friction in personal and professional relationships. It's perfectly normal when practice owners disagree about business decisions, such as whether to hire another doctor or remodel the practice. So make sure you allow space so the dueling parties can sort through their opinions and reach a consensus.

  • Schedule a meeting with the practice manager. Let her know how this affects the team and ask her to intervene. For example, you might say, "I've noticed the doctors are dealing with some issues right now, and I'm concerned it's affecting our team and our care. I'm worried that clients are beginning to notice. What can we do?"

What to do when you're the practice manager

If you're the practice manager or a team leader, you may need to step in. Consider these tips to bring order back to the practice.

Fig. 2

First, evaluate the people involved. What's causing these clashes? Is this a battle of two opposing personalities? Educate yourself about different personality types. Ask team members, including the owners, managers, and team leaders engaged in warfare, to complete a personality profile. Then schedule several mandatory team meetings to discuss personality types. You'll use the results of the profiles to encourage everyone to appreciate their co-workers' differences and see how they all contribute to the practice's success. While you're at it, don't forget to make these team meetings fun. Remember, you're trying to reduce the tension in your practice.

What if the fighting stems from different opinions about every decision, no matter how minor? When the partners can't agree on the direction the practice should take, it's time to talk frankly. Meet with both partners to discuss how their conflict hurts the team and the business. Your goal is to offer choices that encourage them to start working together. You can say, "Can we ask a third party to mediate?" Or, "Is there information I could collect, such as estimates, financial records, or a business plan, that will help you reach a decision together?" You can also ask them to agree to a timeline and make a commitment to resolve the situation. Remember, your job is to stay neutral and look for answers.

You also might suggest the owners meet twice a week. They should schedule this meeting away from the practice so they can discuss their issues and find a resolution. It may be necessary at first for the partners to meet every morning before work. Sometimes it takes that extra push for people who are fighting to calm down and start working together.

If the bosses can't see past their own behavior, you may need to suggest they seek counseling from their certified public accountant, lawyer, or a mediation expert. Whatever you do, if you're planning to continue working at the practice, don't pick sides. You must remain professional and strive to be empathetic and calm. Be supportive to both partners and the tough situation they're facing as they learn to resolve their differences.

When should I give up?

While each of us has our own comfort level with challenging conduct, destructive behavior, and lagging leadership, we all have a limit. Decide what your threshold will be. If it takes all your energy to survive a battle of the bosses, it may be time to consider a hasty exit. However, if you can maintain a positive, constructive attitude, this is an excellent opportunity to build your skills and be a positive force for the practice, your team, and ultimately, pets and clients.

Sheila Grosdidier

Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a partner with VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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