Aamer Hayat, chief operating officer at Avecinia Wellness Center, a two-physician family medicine/internal medicine practice in Clovis, Calif., is no stranger to staff conflict. Small tensions arise among his 12 staff members, he says, on an almost daily basis. But unlike in many other practices, those tiffs rarely escalate into full-blown crises.
"I see conflict as a failure in communication," says Hayat, who estimates large problems due to staff conflict crop up only once or twice each year in his practice. "...We believe in a total transparency model."
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That model, in which Hayat shares the practice's goals, financials, challenges, and opportunities openly with staff, and in which he encourages staff input and involvement, helps keep everyone on the same page and prevents small tensions from escalating. "It's out in the open," says Hayat "If at any time I or somebody else starts noticing there's a little [problem between staff members] ... I like to carry that transparency over and say, 'Hey, you know what, let's get the two people in the same room.'" Often, he says, simply sitting down with the conflicting parties and facilitating a discussion eases the tension.
Hayat's approach to preventing and addressing staff conflict is a smart one, say experts. And it's one that most medical practice managers might benefit from emulating. While Hayat's staff rarely gets into large-scale, time-consuming disagreements, most managers are not so lucky. A 2008 report published by research firm CCP, Inc., which produces the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment tool, found that most employees in American businesses spend almost three hours per week dealing with conflict. The report, "Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harvest It to Thrive," also found that while 85 percent of workers say they deal with workplace conflict, only 22 percent say their managers deal with it well.
That percentage would not surprise Charlie Hauck, president and lead trainer at Growth Dynamics, a consulting company specializing in the selection and development of human capital and strategic planning. "Managers, in most practices, bring something other than people skills to the table as their primary reason for getting hired," says Hauck. "They may be really good at office management on a technical or a fiscal side, but very few managers in healthcare have ever been trained to deal with people challenges."
To help address that training gap and ensure you are prepared to manage conflict appropriately at your practice, we asked Hauck and other experts to weigh in. Here's what they say are some of the best ways to prevent conflict from cropping up, and how to address it when it does occur.
Set ground rules
The first step to preventing conflict is making it clear to staff members that it will not be tolerated. Take time to discuss your expectations regarding professionalism with your staff, and specifically, point out that conflict and behaviors that lead to it, such as gossip, are unacceptable, says Vivian Scott, a certified mediator and president of Vivian Scott Mediation, LLC. Moving forward, discuss these professional standards during every new employee's onboarding process.
Also, make your expectations regarding performance and workplace culture clear to staff, such as what time they need to arrive, how they must accomplish certain tasks, and how they should communicate with each other. When these expectations are clearly defined, it will reduce the likelihood that conflicts will arise because employees are not on the same page, says Hauck. For instance, if one employee's definition of being "on time" is getting in the front door at 9 a.m. on the dot, and another's is sitting at his desk ready to work at 9 a.m., the employee who arrives earlier than the other employee may begin to build up resentment toward the other staff member. "This goes back to clearly defining the expectations of exceptional performance," says Hauck. " ... Consistency cures a lot of the things that we're talking about here."