Let’s talk…conflict management

How can practice managers and GP partners identify and manage performance issues early on? How do you solve conflicts before they escalate? Marie Cahalane speaks to Jane Gunn, an expert in the field, to find out how to get the best out of the team around you

Are you aware of the power of your team? Enhanced performance and increased productivity is the result of a connected team that collaborates. There are simple ways of unlocking this natural resource; it’s down to effective management and leadership and creating and sustaining an environment in which people want to work. There is much literature on motivating your team by, for example, investing in them, giving them autonomy within their role, or responsibility within the practice, but how do you sustain this?

General practices are under a great deal of pressure – pressure felt by each member of staff – and this can manifest itself in an individual’s performance or their relations with others, affecting the work of the whole team. So how can you diffuse a situation or, better still, nip it in the bud? Jane Gunn, an intercultural mediator, facilitator, speaker and author, shares her insights.

Identifying performance issues

“Conflict is, quite simply, the process of people expressing their dissatisfaction with each other or with a situation,” Jane explains. She outlines certain tell-tale traits that suggest a breakdown in communication between members of staff: avoidance or refusal to speak to colleagues; parallel conversations, for example, gossip; intentionally withholding information; sabotage; fighting or defensive behaviour. These may seem obvious but, in hectic practice conditions, ‘obvious’ things can go unnoticed. As a manager, it’s paramount that you’re fully aware of such incidences and deal with them promptly and effectively, as they can hinder the delivery of patient-care.

Encouraging and facilitating collaboration is essential to overcoming performance issues. Jane endorses a brain-based model that requires an understanding of the true drivers of collaboration and influence. “The brain reacts to social stimulation to minimize threat and maximize reward. It’s all about perception,” she says. In her book, How to Beat Bedlam in the Boardroom and Boredom in the Bedroom, Jane dissects these drivers, analysing the four ‘Cs’: connection, consideration, control and caring (more on this later!)

The art of the two-way conversation

“Listening is the most important skill, confirming that you’ve understood exactly what’s being conveyed to you,” Jane says. She adds that there’s a difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. “When we’re listening – or supposed to be – what we pay close attention to are the things that directly concern us at that moment. The same is true when we’re speaking; we believe people automatically understand what we’re saying but, unless both speaker and listener share the same message, the words may be meaningless.” Seeing things through ‘fresh eyes’, appreciating alternative perspectives and valuing the unique identities of others, their opinions, and what they bring to the team is important.

Disputes will arise – within your practice and externally. Take a step back, survey the situation and gain perspective. For example, Jane suggests looking at differences as opportunities for learning and, in cases where conflicts escalate and become deadlocked, having an impartial, third-party mediate and facilitate conversations can alleviate the problem. “Mediation can help the parties involved to shift their conversation from being negative and destructive to positive and constructive – in other words, it can help them practice collaborative problem-solving,” Jane explains.

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Every conflict, Jane says, requires that you gain insight into the real issue, asking not only, ‘What conversations are we having?’ but also, ‘What conversations are we not having?’ because, as she says, “Whatever is unspoken is hardest to change.” In challenging times the importance of an open and progressive approach is one to be welcomed; you never know, it might just make the crucial difference in reducing conflict and creating a happier practice!

Jane explains the four ‘Cs’:

Connection: Is all about status – feeling equal or better than another, ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group.

The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response. This can be prompted by giving advice or instruction, suggesting someone could be more effective at a task or offering feedback that may be interpreted as critical. Many everyday conversations which slide into arguments are driven by a desire to not be perceived as lesser than another.

Conversely, people feel an increase in status when they’re learning and improving; this effect is amplified if attention is paid to such improvement.

Consideration: A sense of fairness – respect and courtesy.

A sense of threat may be experienced if someone perceives that they’re being treated unfairly and/or not being treated with respect. This can be felt, for example, where different sets of rules apply to partners and to admin staff or where there is a lack of clear ground rules, expectations or objectives.

Allowing teams to identify their own rules can help. Establishing clear expectations in all situations – from a one-hour meeting to a five-year contract – can help ensure that fair exchanges occur.

Control: A sense of certainty about outcomes and the future.

Uncertainty can generate a threat response – not knowing your boss’s expectations or whether your job is secure can be highly debilitating but, even in uncertain times, the perception of certainty can be increased.

Some examples of how to increase certainty include making implicit concepts more explicit, such as agreeing verbally how long a meeting will run, or stating clear objectives at the start of any discussion.

Caring: A sense of being valued and cared about.

Where staff feel their needs are not being considered, their opinions not valued or where they’re not listened to, a threat response may be triggered. Understanding these drivers can help individuals and organisations function more effectively; reducing conflicts and increasing the amount of time people spend in the ‘approach state’ – where people aren’t trying to avoid things but are able to think rationally and creatively – is a concept synonymous with good performance.

Motivating and enhancing your team’s work ethic by creating the right environment

As well as working to ensure and improve team collaboration, Jane suggests the following:

  • Make time to listen
  • Involve staff in decision-making processes
  • Discover what’s most important to your team and why
  • Don’t micro-manage
  • Be prepared to be wrong or have someone express a better idea
  • Value everyone and their contribution.

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