Sick staff: how to heal disputes between practice employees

We all fear conflict, but it is impossible to avoid – especially when stakes are high. When tension is simmering and the blood boiling in your practice, it’s time to use your leadership skills to mitigate the dispute: but how? 

Working in primary care can be rewarding and challenging in equal measure; in fact, these two, seemingly opposing aspects, are different sides of the same coin. The work is genuinely impactful and irrefutably important – hence rewarding. However, this comes with huge responsibility and pressure. Even in the most well-meaning of settings, tensions can run high, and conflicts can arise. 

As practice manager, it is your job to get to the bottom of any conflicts, sorting them out before they turn the practice atmosphere sour. Luckily, conflict can shine a spotlight on issues within the practice and, rather than being overwhelmingly negative, conflict can be the tool you need to make positive change.  

All of this is easier said than done. How, then, do you put a positive spin on employee disagreement? How do you effectively handle conflict in the practice so that a dispute can be transformed into a solution? 

Cultivating a culture of constructive criticism 

Employees may find it difficult to whistleblow. Scare stories about nurses and doctors who have been ignored, chastised or even unfairly dismissed for calling out inappropriate colleague behaviour discourage employees from speaking up about their concerns in their own practices. 

To counter this, the practice manager should cultivate an environment where whistleblowing is encouraged, and where constructive criticism is the gold standard. 

To achieve this, you must lead by example and win the trust of your employees. Your criticism should be genuinely constructive, delivered without accusation and offered with empathy. Of course, if an employee has done something deeply inappropriate, or even against the law, greater measures must be taken. However, if someone has, or is, making an innocent mistake, it should be addressed with compassion; this way, they are more likely to respect, and act on, your request, keeping conflict to a minimum. 

In a culture where whistleblowing is encouraged, problems are flagged when they arise and can be dealt with quickly; issues are less likely to simmer under the surface, eventually boiling over into a large-scale, difficult to handle dispute. 

Saying ‘No’ to ruling by fear

For constructive criticism to be successful, you need to make sure fear is not a ruling principle in your leadership style. Ruling by fear never works. If your staff are too scared to put a foot wrong for fear of your wrath, employee dissatisfaction will sky-rocket and you will struggle to retain staff. After all, an excess of anxiety is only likely to generate more mistakes. 

If fear prevents employees from airing their concerns, conflict can never be embraced as a positive force for change. 

Encouraging feedback and teamwork 

When a dispute breaks out between employees, the practice manager can act as the mediator who either fuels, or dampens, the flame. Hosting conflict meetings can be both professional and proactive. Organising one-on-one or two-on-one meetings, where the conflicted parties can talk through their disagreement, whilst you are present as mediator, may help you to source solutions to the problem whilst avoiding the escalation of tension or anger. 

Having a weekly practice meeting, where all practice staff are present, is another way to encourage employees to air their concerns. You can come up with solutions together, reinforcing the fact you are a team and that it is paramount you look out for one another. This not only generates a more pleasant working environment but also creates a ‘family’ atmosphere which will boost employee satisfaction. 

Ask anyone who loves their job why they do, and they will almost always state that a supportive, cohesive web of people, who they can interact with most days, is a key ingredient of their professional happiness. As practice manager, you can act as the glue between employees, making sure conflict is examined to find solutions so that the bonds between them grow stronger rather than weaken. 

Weeding out the ‘well-poisoners’

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You may not have heard the phrase before – but you know exactly who it refers to. Unfortunately, even if your interviewing process is a rigorous test of personality and professionalism, some employees will only show their true colours once they’ve landed the role. And then they complain about everything and never seem to take any steps to rectify the problems they flag up. They are the well-poisoners, seeping into the atmosphere and making a, once-happy, team miserable.

Well-poisoners are often glumly tolerated but they can become a huge source of conflict in your surgery. As practice manager, you make the call on whether the quality of work they do for the practice is worth the misery they leave in their wakes. If someone is genuinely making others unhappy, it might be time to consider having a review meeting with them. If they refuse to change, you may have no choice but to find someone else for the role.  

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