I am a solo practitioner with a nice, successful practice in a Midwest suburb. My biggest source of stress by far is staff conflict. I have a business assistant and a chairside assistant who do not like each other, and they have attempted to “divide and conquer” by involving the other staff members in their never-ending squabbles. Both staff members are very good at their respective jobs and I do not want to lose either of them. But something has to give. Is there any way to bring unity to my team or is turnover inevitable?
— Dr. Bob
Dear Dr. Bob,
You didn’t provide any details about the nature of their conflict, but ongoing conflicts like this are usually a case of clashing personalities. Like oil and water, some personalities just do not mix. Plus, some people actually enjoy drama. It becomes a competition, and the winner is the one with the strongest or most stubborn personality.
One of the most detrimental influences on staff dynamics is a bully. A good indication that you have a bully in the office is if there is a history of departing staff members who cannot get along with one particular person. If that’s the case, the answer is simple—immediately terminate the employment of the bully.
You mentioned that you would like to retain both staff members, so you will need to exercise leadership skills in mediation. First, schedule a conference with the two warring staff members. (It’s a good idea to have an outsider witness this conference.) Have them sit at opposite ends of the table, and position yourself in the middle. Tell them the purpose of the conference is to give them an opportunity to air their differences and determine if resolution is possible.
Make sure they both understand they are not allowed to speak when the other person is speaking and they each get a turn to speak uninterrupted. If one butts in while the other is speaking, the meeting is over. You decide who will speak first. When that person is finished, the other person will be allowed to speak. After they have both had their turns, thank them for their willingness to come to the table.
Now it is your turn to speak. Tell them how much you appreciate their good work, and ask each of them if they enjoy working in your practice. Then tell them how their ongoing conflict has become a source of frustration and stress to you, so much so that you have come to a decision crossroads. Tell them that they do not have to love each other but they have to be able to be civil and courteous in the office, and they are to refrain from talking about their problems with their coworkers. Then ask each of them separately if they believe they can move beyond this problem so they can get back to providing excellent patient care. If they agree, tell them you will meet with them again in one month to let them know of your decision. Basically, you are giving them one month to work out their differences. If they can’t, then one or both of them could lose their jobs.
Be prepared for one or possibly both to leave. It will make your job easier if someone makes that decision. The bottom line is that they are adults and they need to learn to work out their differences without involving their coworkers.
Dentistry is stressful enough without having to deal with conflict in the workplace. And always remember—anyone can be replaced.
All the best,
Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical consulting services. Dianne’s new book, Real World Dental Hygiene, is now available on her website at wattersonspeaks.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Dianne at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (336) 472-3515.