Staff management is easily one of the biggest challenges practice owners face, and also a recurring topic in my consulting work. Wherever humans come together and interact, conflict and tension will occasionally rear its ugly head.
From a production standpoint, unchecked conflict and stress can take a toll on the business. Instead of a collaborative work environment where teamwork is evident, and everyone is working toward common goals, the culture becomes one of division, hostility and backstabbing. A stressful work environment is often the reason for higher levels of absenteeism and employee turnover. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress related.
Many leaders avoid addressing conflict for fear of making the situation worse. This is rarely a good option, as tension and ill feelings will linger under the surface. Instead of collaboration and teamwork, people avoid each other. Time that could be spent doing productive work is eaten up by venting and gossiping. A consulting client once told me it felt like his staff consisted of two teams trying to sabotage each other due to recent conflict. That’s not a good work dynamic.
Below is a 4-step approach to dealing with employee conflict. Sometimes this involves speaking directly with an employee, other times it involves mediating between other employees. Either way, this will help you effectively address the issue with less chance of making the situation worse.
1. Appreciation. Focus your efforts on preserving a healthy working relationship, not being “right”. For example, “You’ve been my office manager for several years. I value your contributions and the working relationship we have, and I want to see that continue. However, there’s an issue that I fear could jeopardize that. Can we talk about it?” A tone of appreciation will likely be much better received than a tone of hostility and blame, which will likely be met with defensiveness.
2. Stick with the facts. Often times, conflict is fueled not by the actual facts, but rather our interpretation of the facts. Telling an employee “You obviously don’t care about this job because you never show up on time” is just your interpretation. The employee will likely get defensive and may even have a valid reason, like needing to drop a child off at school. Stick with the facts and try to keep emotion out if it. For example, “I see from your time sheet that you were late three times last week”.
3. Get curious. In situations of stress and conflict, most people’s reaction is to find someone to blame. Rather than looking to the situation as the source of the problem, we look to other people. This usually makes the situation worse. Try to uncover what is driving the employee’s behavior. Without fully understanding the situation, people’s actions can often seem very unreasonable. In my experience, most people’s behaviors and reactions are fairly reasonable once you understand the reasons behind them – also taking into consideration their unique perspective of a situation. Once you’ve outlined the facts, ask the employee to help you better understand the situation. For the time being, suspend blame and replace it with curiosity.
4. Explore solutions. Now that you better understand the situation, look for reasonable and satisfactory solutions. Let the employee or employees contribute their own ideas. It’s also possible that YOU share some responsibility in the conflict. For your part, what will you do? When this meeting ends, make sure all parties are in agreement and crystal clear on expectations. Conflict resolution has much less to do with agreeing with each other; rather it’s a process of listening and better understanding each other’s perspective.
Dr. Vargo serves as Optometric Practice Management Consultant for IDOC. A published author and speaker with more than 15 years clinical experience, he is now a full-time consultant advising ODs in all areas of practice management and optometric office operations. For questions or comments about this article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.