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Keeping office conflict in check

March 1, 2008
In most dental offices, conflict happens.
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In most dental offices, conflict happens. And when it does, quickly dealing with it is crucial. Dentists can prevent conflict before it happens by keeping employee morale high and exercising good leadership.

by Brian Hudgins

And when it does, quickly dealing with it is crucial. Dentists can prevent conflict before it happens by keeping employee morale high and exercising good leadership.

It’s a scenario seen countless times in offices throughout the country. One staff member makes a comment about another that is viewed as a verbal attack. It could be a remark about a wardrobe selection or physical appearance. More likely, it is an evaluation of a co-worker’s work ethic.

“One of the overlying things with people is equity,” said Thom Goracy, the practice administrator with Dental Associates of Connecticut, P.C. “When someone perceives inequity — that one group is working harder than the other — it creates the most conflict.”

Other sources of conflict can simply come from different outlooks or styles among co-workers. The clashing within a confined work area might be over a relatively trivial matter, but the effect on the individuals involved and the rest of the office can be damaging.

Goracy faced a situation in a supervisory role early in his career where the inability of two staff members to put their differences aside resulted in a dismissal.

“I told them to stop it, that I didn’t care who was right or wrong, and that I’d fire both of them,” he said. “I took that tact early in my career. I let one of them go. As I look back, I think I handled it poorly. But maybe not. Sometimes the best way is to let someone go and that is the final solution.”

Even in a seemingly isolated dispute between two co-workers, there is the problem of other people being drawn into the situation as they take sides in the conflict.

“It just gets worse,” Goracy said. “One party has his backers and the other side has his. Now, more people are involved. Next, patient care suffers. It takes away from why we are here and we get into a ‘he said, she said’ environment.”

To help dentists and office managers keep things running as smoothly as possible, early conflict prevention is the most effective method. That sometimes takes shape during the hiring process.

“We try through the interview process to see if their beliefs lend to a team atmosphere — we ask during the interview how their previous employer handled conflict,” Goracy said.

To manage conflict, some basic starting skills are necessary. Dr. Roger Levin, founder of The Levin Group, a dental consulting firm based in Baltimore, has been addressing these issues since he started the group in 1985.

“A well-trained, motivated, and happy team is critical,” Levin said. “Cohesiveness of the team is one of the main things we focus on. We spend a good amount of time on verbal skills training and conflict resolution so everyone is on the same page.”

Quickly dealing with those situations when everyone is not on the same page is crucial.

“The next step is to nip it in the bud,” Goracy said. “We don’t let any conflict fester. You have to go after it immediately. Don’t let it go unchecked because that sends the message that it is OK to have conflict.”

To prevent a conflict from growing worse, Levin said there is the need to first recognize that a problem exists.

“We advise doctors how to handle it step by step and evaluate how it affects practice productivity.”

Those steps include selecting a time to discuss the issue, clarifying the nature of the conflict, and discussing a resolution. In most cases, the process can include an informal meeting between the two people involved or a more formal evaluation run through a human resources department.

Within a group such as Dental Associates of Connecticut, P.C., which includes 150 employees, 23 doctors, and 19 partners, conflict will be routinely present. It might be a conflict between doctors, between a doctor and his supervisor, or another staff member with a supervisor.

Levin noted that as staff size increases within an operation, the frequency of conflict also increases.

“There are more opportunities for cliques and personality struggles,” Levin said. “As a practice grows, leadership needs to grow.”

The key component of leadership is open and honest communication. From his dealings with thousands of different offices, Levin outlined a few basic items that need to be handled regularly to keep employee morale high.

  • Every staff member needs a very clear job description. A lack of one creates stress in the practice.
  • Staff members need semiannual performance reviews to ensure growth.
  • It’s OK to outgrow a relationship with a staff member. Keeping a person mistakenly can cause frustration for all involved.

Levin and Goracy agree that employee conflict can be an obstacle for a dentist who has just opened a practice’s doors or for a dentist who has been in business for decades.

“It’s all groups,” Goracy said. “I have known some people for 25 years who have never learned how to deal with conflict. It crosses age barriers. To me, if someone has been with an organization for 20 years and has not learned how to resolve conflict, that is a failure of management.”

When a couple of co-workers or a small group are caught up in an ongoing conflict, it may be necessary for a dentist to call on his or her people skills as a primary resource above and beyond clinical ability.

“We have seen many go for years without improving their leadership skills,” Levin said. “We have also seen dramatic improvement in dentists who are mostly concerned about clinical skills. They don’t realize until later on that they need to be concerned about leadership skills.”

Aside from the negative effects of conflict, the influx of new ideas that can come through disagreement between staff members can be a positive force in an office.

“Good conflict is two people who are both trying to improve an organization and they have two different ways of doing it,” Goracy said.

To eliminate the waste of time and resources caused by conflict, it is important to intervene early before the problem intensifies. This is sometimes easier said than done.

“The best thing is prevention. We talk about things we don’t tolerate,” Goracy said.

“If we can create a culture of jumping on conflict, that is ideal. But it’s hard to do. Dealing with conflict can be nerve-wracking for supervisors. Try to discuss it rationally with give and take.”

The ability to let staff members voice their feelings and listen to those points of view is also part of the solution to keeping the peace.

“Everyone believes he or she is right, and we all have egos,” Goracy said. “I believe people don’t come to work and look to cause trouble. It is a perception people give off. They have to be aware of it and avoid it.”

Brian Hudgins, a Houston native, has covered topics ranging from coastal erosion to child support issues during the last decade. A graduate of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., he enjoys the interview process and finding out about various business and life experiences of people. He resides in Lafayette, La. Contact him at [email protected].

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