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Columns , Leadership

Keep the peace

Successful conflict management requires knowing when to act, what to say and when to sit everyone down for a little coaching.

Keep the peace
The beauty of conflict resolution training is that, if well done with receptive participants, healing can take place.

The reality is that after spending all day with your co-workers, almost every day of the week, conflict is inevitable at your veterinary practice. What is reasonable, though, as well as desirable, is to create a healthy work environment, one where conflicts that arise are managed in a functional way that allows the practice to flourish. From a practical standpoint, managing conflict is part of your job if you’re in a supervisory position.

To effectively manage workplace conflict, here are nine strategies to consider.

1. Accept the Reality of Conflict

Just as the avoidance of making a dentist appointment won’t make your toothache go away, pretending that you don’t notice simmering conflict in the office won’t work well, either. In both cases, avoiding the reality of the situation is likely to make things worse, perhaps significantly so.

As a quick demonstration, compare and contrast these two scenarios to quickly see how conflict avoidance doesn’t work.

  • When you face conflict head on, you often can manage the situation before it grows too large or becomes too heated.
  • If you become known as the manager who won’t address sticky situations, employees will learn to handle these situations themselves, which will lead only to more conflict. This opens the door for bullies to take advantage of more subdued employees, which is a recipe for disaster, including, but not limited to, the likelihood of low retention rates at your practice.

So, as a foundation, accepting conflict as a natural part of working together is important.

2. Accept That Conflict Often Means That Employees Really Care

Frustrating as conflict can be in the practice, especially on a hectic day, the real enemy is apathy. Many times a conflict between two co-workers over, say, the best way to schedule appointments, might stem from the fact that they both truly care about your clients and want to make the experience a good one.

Apathy? Well, whatever.

3. Stay Calm and Find Common Ground

When employees have different opinions about, say, how to arrange the room where you board pets, it’s unlikely that one employee has all the right ideas and the other all the wrong ones. So, as the manager, if you can stay calm when a debate threatens to turn into an argument, you can guide the employees into using the best parts of each person’s ideas. Better yet, you can ask each of them to describe a situation where elements of everyone’s ideas could be combined into a satisfactory solution.

If the result is better processes and procedures or an improved ability of employees to collaborate and cooperate, then the conflict ultimately had a positive impact. If the conflict motivates the employees or bystanders to handle a conflict in a better way going forward, that’s a plus.

4. Offer Conflict Resolution Training

Not all situations involving conflict end well, of course, and even those with positive effects may have negative ones, too. Perhaps a particular conflict was resolved but one or more employees now hold back from sharing good suggestions, or their relationships aren’t as comfortable as before. In this case, damage control might be needed. The beauty of conflict resolution training is that, if well done with receptive participants, healing can take place. Plus, the training can play an important role in preventing future conflicts from getting out of control.

Let’s say your practice holds a monthly lunch-and-learn session where one month you learn about the new practice software and the next you review sexual-harassment policies. What makes good sense is to offer a session on conflict management — not to point fingers at anyone but just to have an expert share useful tips and strategies.

5. Remember That Words Matter

Once employees stop using “you messages,” as in “Look what you did again with this paperwork” in favor of “I messages,” such as “I feel more comfortable when we file away the paperwork after each client leaves,” disagreements are less likely to occur.

The same is true when employees stop using “always” and “never” in their workplace conversations. Look at the differences between these two statements:

  • “Our paperwork is piling up.”
  • “Our paperwork is always piling up.”

6. Document Significant Conflict

Although minor instances of conflict don’t need documentation (unless, say, one employee seems to be involved nearly every day), serious conflict needs to be recorded based on the policies and procedures laid out in your employee manual. This can come in handy during performance reviews or, in a worst-case scenario, when you need to fire someone who didn’t adjust his or her behavior through your standard disciplinary processes.

7. Clearly Define Policies and Procedures

Sometimes, conflicts between employees about how to do something highlight the fact that clear procedures don’t exist in the particular area of work. When this happens, the conflict can serve as an impetus to add clarity. Perhaps you, as the manager, can share information that employees didn’t have. Other times, a team approach works better when the involved parties decide the best way to handle the situations that caused the conflict, choosing among several acceptable alternatives.

8. You Don’t Have to Strive for Complete Agreement

As you work toward reduced conflict in your practice, remember to focus on the right goal, which isn’t a complete lack of disagreement. Some of the best ideas come from group discussions and collaborations, and from examining different approaches offered by different employees. You can tell that your practice is handling differences of opinion in a healthy way when team members focus on the tasks at hand, not personality differences.

Here are two examples:

  • Unhealthy: “I don’t like the way you talk to clients when you’re in a hurry.”
  • Healthy: “We’ve been extra busy lately. I’d like to see us be efficient while remaining friendly, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve figured that out yet.”

Having differences of opinions about how to accomplish goals is healthy as long as the situation is addressed in a respectful way that allows for diverse points of view.

9. Listen and Recap

Employees who disagree in a healthy way listen carefully to the other person’s position. This type of active listening includes encouraging the other person to share more about her opinions and ideas, and asking questions to find out more.

Restating what the other person just said can ensure an accurate understanding. The goal isn’t to repeat the other side of the conversation verbatim but to restate the main ideas, including the factual portions of the message and any emotional components. Thanking the other person for sharing her viewpoints can be helpful, even when the perspective is different from one’s own.

Consider holding workshops in which employees can role-play scenarios and use active listening techniques. This can help in conflict resolution and have much greater application.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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