Like Cats and Dogs

July 1, 2007

We have had constant tension in our back office, which is staffed by four medical assistants. Bickering over schedules, not helping each other out, rude behavior, and one chart-throwing incident. Ranging in age from 22 to 47, they are all good with patients, and they are all organized and competent in required skills. They just fight most of the time. One or two seem often to instigate the problems, but it is not one person all the time. I have tried team-building meetings, individual coaching, counseling, tying bonuses to teamwork, threatening termination, appeals to their professionalism, writing up individuals on occasion, bribing, but nothing has worked for more than two weeks. Now I am considering HR outsourcing. Any suggestions?

Question: We have had constant tension in our back office, which is staffed by four medical assistants. Bickering over schedules, not helping each other out, rude behavior, and one chart-throwing incident. Ranging in age from 22 to 47, they are all good with patients, and they are all organized and competent in required skills. They just fight most of the time. One or two seem often to instigate the problems, but it is not one person all the time. I have tried team-building meetings, individual coaching, counseling, tying bonuses to teamwork, threatening termination, appeals to their professionalism, writing up individuals on occasion, bribing, but nothing has worked for more than two weeks. Now I am considering HR outsourcing. Any suggestions?

Answer: You know, I think I need to write a book about changing staff dynamics. Such a problem seems to exist everywhere, and it is so hard to change.

I was just reading an article in Fast Company about change. The article pointed out how few people, even after a stent or open-heart surgery, are actually able to change their lifestyle. Most end up needing another procedure. In short, even the prospect of death can’t get them to change.

What has worked is emphasizing the plus side: Lose weight and you’ll have better sex, be able to take walks on the beach, have more energy.

So, try a “be nice” boot camp.

Get the employees together, make it very dramatic, and say, “This is it. You can be miserable and angry every day or happy every day. I want you to be happy. Don’t you want to be happy? You can be. It’s totally within your reach. Today marks a change for each and every one of you. This is your chance to be joyful. From now on, you start every day complimenting one another. Go ahead, right now, say something nice about everyone here. We’ll do this every morning. You smile every time you see one another. You eat lunch together everyday. You bring in your husbands or boyfriends and have lunch tomorrow on me. On Friday, you have to leave work 30 minutes early and all go together for a drink. On Monday, come prepared to tell us about your favorite weekend activity.”

Help them to know one another personally.

Do you have a manager? What is she doing to help or hurt? I do think this needs to be managed from the top, but your manager needs to help, too.

What are the issues underlying the bickering? Is it “my physician” versus “your physician”? Look for ways to stomp out the sources of conflict.

Look at what made the other solutions fail. Were they not consistently held or just not motivating? Don’t make the same mistakes again.

I fear all this won’t necessarily help, but it’s the absolute best I can do. People are crazy.