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Is there a conflict between your practice staff members? Are personalities clashing? Is staff not communicating? Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Rather, it will fester until it explodes. Recognizing where staff problems exist, identifying the issues, and working to resolve them can help avoid a drop-off in morale and a loss of patients and revenue.
“If the doctor can come to some consistency in his or her mind about what the problem is, then that’s where mediation can take place." - Dianne Watterson, R.D.H., M.B.A.
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
That’s the question asked by Jack Nicholson in the 1996 movie “Mars Attacks” — a question originally made famous by Rodney King in 1992.
Unfortunately, the reality is that everyone does not get along. Sometimes it’s a question of personality clashes, other times simply poor communication. Regardless, conflict, if not addressed and handled properly, can be destructive. And when it occurs among staff in a dental practice, it can lead to low morale, a reduction in productivity, and even the loss of patients.
“Staff members can pick up on [conflict],” says Dianne Watterson, R.D.H., M.B.A., a Lexington, North Carolina-based dental management consultant. “They can sense when there is staff conflict, or even conflict with the doctor. And sometimes, you can lost patients over it.”
One of the causes of dental staff conflict is bullying. Watterson describes this as when one staff member with a dominant personality, who might be very good at his or her job, takes a sharp tone with others and makes them feel uncomfortable. In essence, this individual is trying to make him or herself indispensible to the doctor.
“And sometimes doctors are so involved in their work they don’t pay a lot of attention to these staff members in a personal way,” Watterson explains. “They just know that ‘She’s a 10 at chair side,’ or ‘She’s the best hygienist I’ve ever had.’”
Awareness is critical, as is listening to complaints from other staff members. Watterson recalls a situation at a dental practice in Georgia where a particular dental assistant was very good at her work, yet every other staff member complained about her when surveys were conducted. One excellent hygienist left the practice because of this other staff member.
“I said to the doctor, ‘I’m going to lay it on the line to you,’” Watterson says. “If you don’t get rid of her, you are risking a mutiny type of situation here. And I told him, every staff member can be replaced.”
Bullying isn’t the only element that causes staff conflict. Clashes occur between people with completely different personalities. “Oil and water don’t mix,” Watterson says. And that’s when the doctor needs to get involved and get some answers. What’s causing the conflict? Is there a pattern to the conflict? Is one person always running to the doctor complaining about the other?
“If the doctor can come to some consistency in his or her mind about what the problem is, then that’s where mediation can take place,” Watterson says.
Mediation can be a very useful tool to resolving staff conflict, but only if you understand what the true problem is. And, if a significant personality conflict does exist between two staff members, Watterson says the chances of resolving it long term are not good.
“Sometimes the doctor has to make the painful decision to let somebody go, because the two people are probably never going to get along with one another,” she says.
Having an independent third party oversee the mediation can be beneficial. As an outsider they can often see the situation more clearly because they have no personal stake in the situation. For example, Watterson will often listen to both sides of the story, draw some conclusions, and make some recommendations. She also tells the doctor what he or she can expect if they don’t take any action.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of people wanting to be heard,” Watterson says. “They have valid arguments. It could be a situation where one person is not performing their job well and it’s affecting the other staff member. So maybe one of the workers needs training.”
And sometimes there could be what Watterson calls a “pot stirrer” in the group, someone who like keeping conflict afloat. Doctors may not like to admit that they’ve hired someone who likes drama, and an outside can often spot those things a little quicker than someone in the practice.
If a real problem exists, Watterson will often give the staff members who are at odds with each other time to ruminate on the situation. For example, she will ask one of the combatants if he or she can stop gossiping (if that’s the problem), and then meet with them again in two or three weeks.
Of course, Watterson points out, the staff member could answer “Yes,” they can stop gossiping or whatever the antagonizing action is, but in their mind they’re thinking “No.”
“I can’t change people, but people can change themselves,” Watterson says.
And above all else, she cautions, don’t just sweep something under the rug and expect it to go away.
“It just gets bigger and bigger until there is a huge blowup.”
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