Workplace conflict and what to do about it

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workplace conflict
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Conflict within the practice not only makes for an unhappy workplace but could be costing serious dollars unless dealt with—and fast. By John Burfitt

Amanda and Lisa were receptionists in a busy Brisbane dental practice, each with very different working styles. Amanda liked to chat on with patients, both in person and over the telephone, while Lisa was more direct and task focused when it came to confirming appointments and settling bills.

Eventually, the intrinsic differences in their patient styles became a major point of irritation, with Lisa increasingly annoyed that she seemed to be doing almost twice the work as she processed clients much faster.

The brewing hostility was obvious to patients, but the practice owner had no idea until the day a long-term patient mentioned the “boxing matches” he had witnessed at the front desk.

“That’s a situation you never want to allow to fester in your practice,” workplace expert Michelle Gibbings says. She has recently explored the topic of workplace conflict in the book Bad Boss

“Far too many business owners are either unaware or don’t want to get involved and so let situations like this continue until they become destructive to the team as well as to the reputation of the business.

“If there’s a problem among the team, ignoring it will not make it go away. It’s up to the practice leader to take care of the business by stepping up and taking responsibility for what is going on.”

According to an American study into workplace conflict conducted by CPP, Inc.—part of the Myers-Briggs Company—almost three hours a week is spent dealing with conflict, costing an estimated annual bill of $US359 billion in lost hours.

Almost 25 per cent of employees also stated that avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work, while one third reported workplace conflict resulted in a staff member leaving, either through firing or quitting.

When tackling the issue within a practice, Gibbings advises that some initial analysis needs to be done on how the workplace functions and the state of the business culture. And that analysis should start at the top.

“The practice leader must assess their own behaviour, to determine if something they’re doing is instigating or inflaming tensions in the team,” she says. “As the boss, you are setting the standard and should be role modelling the right type of behaviour.

“If you’re ineffective, dismissive or a bully, then that kind of standard will flow through to the team.”

The impact of the practice leader’s behaviour should never be underestimated because of the issues it can cause down the line.

A happy, cohesive and effective team is the kind of place people want to work at and clients want to deal with.

Michelle Gibbings, workplace expert & author

“I have seen situations where there is intense tension between two team members because the boss is not doing something they should be taking care of,” Gibbings says. “Sometimes, leaders play favourites, or they are not clear in their communication with every person. That can lead to issues the boss is not even aware they have caused.”

Workplace conflicts among staff are usually the result of personality clashes, poor work habits, resistance to change, poor communication or unclear expectations. Whatever the issue, getting to the root of the conflict is the essential first step in confronting the problem, Gibbings advises.

“This is when to have the big conversations, to find out what is happening for each person and from their perspective,” she says. “Let them express what’s going on, and you must remain impartial.

“Then, it is a matter of everyone owning their part in the problem, working out how to resolve it and how to go forward into the future. This is when a good leader knows how to negotiate what can be a volatile situation so the issue can be ultimately resolved. It’s a time for accountability, to decide what kind of a workplace everyone wants to operate in.” 

Focusing on creating a more positive workplace culture needs to be a high priority when sorting out team conflict, dental training consultant Julie Parker of Julie Parker Practice Success says.

“If the conflict is compromising the team culture, patient care or employee psychological safety, then the leader needs to provide a pathway back to team harmony,” she says. 

“It’s challenging to build or maintain a positive team culture when there is one bad seed. I’ve seen many cases of a practice suffering through the damaging impact of one or two damaging employees, and the tragedy is it’s usually the good, high-performing team members who leave and the bad ones stay on.”

Which is why, Parker stresses, the practice leader must act as soon as a problem becomes obvious.

“Poor leadership that tolerates negative behaviour is not a place anyone wants to work,” she says. “The practice leader needs to explain acceptable processes for managing workplace conflicts and formalise a system into the practice processes, explaining what the team culture will be from this point on. 

“This follow-up is crucial to let all team members know, not just the ones in conflict, that this kind of disruptive behaviour will not be tolerated and there are standards that must be adhered to.”

Stepping into the role of mediator and negotiator can be challenging for those who are confrontation adverse, but Michelle Gibbings says it is an essential part of effective management.

“Leadership is a learned skill and if you want a stronger, more effective and happier team, this is a skill that can be developed,” she says. “Maybe you bring in a coach to help guide you or do a course in conflict management or read some of the great books that are available, but do something to know how to deal with these situations in the most effective way 

“Approach this as developing a lifelong skill that will help out not just in the way you run your business but also in many aspects of your life. And remember this—a happy, cohesive and effective team is the kind of place people want to work at and clients want to deal with.”  

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