Conflict Resolution within the Veterinary Team:
Facilitating an Atmosphere of Respect
Many people working together in a high-stress environment and a relatively small space will inevitably create some conflict between coworkers. As pet health care providers, we are in no way immune to conflict, and if unchecked or dealt with poorly, conflict can distract us from our primary goal of maintaining and restoring the health of pets.
Ideally, team members will be able to develop the skills to handle conflict with each other respectfully and in a way that each person feels as though he or she is valued and that a resolution has been reached. As a team leader, you may be called on sometimes to facilitate this process or even help team members learn to become proficient at it. But what do you do if your team members are not doing the things that to be done to resolve conflicts among themselves?
Max the Cat and Joy the Puppy practice conflict resolution
Setting a Mood of Mutual Respect
Make sure that each team member knows how much you value him or her and the other team members. Talk about them behind their back. You could call it reverse gossip. Say things like “Can you believe how proficient Jeni* is at dental procedures? I feel like I have the assistance of three pet nurses when we are working together.” Talk about them right to their faces as well! “Wow, you and Erika are awesome at holding birds for avian exams. I never even worry about being bitten or not being thorough enough when I am working with one of you!”
Encouraging One-on-One Conflict Resolution
If you let even one of your own personal frustrations with a coworker be said out loud, you open a door for your coworkers to turn to you for commiseration when they are frustrated. If you have a conflict with a teammate, set a great example. Talk with them privately and respectfully about whatever needs to be resolved, and do not involve the rest of the team.
Shifting the Balance to a Positive Work Environment
When you consistently build up your team members directly and to each other, and handle conflicts with which you are personally involved privately and respectfully, you will be building the groundwork for an upward, positive spiral.
If a team member knows you respect the person with whom they have a conflict, this will have a two-fold positive effect. First of all, this will color the lens through which they see the conflict. “Wow, Maynard sure is being difficult, but Doc has so much good to say about him, maybe I am not interpreting the situation completely accurately.” And secondly, they will know they will have no company with you in bad-mouthing the person with whom they are having a conflict.
When to Intervene
What if someone has a legitimate concern? Implementing the first two techniques (setting a mood of mutual respect and encouraging one-on-one conflict resolution) will separate the “wheat” (important complaints) from the “chaff” (unimportant complaints). You will tend to get less squabbly stuff, and just get the big important stuff. “I know you really respect Rhonda, and she does a wonderful job, but as team leader, I thought you should know that she just punched Troy for distracting her, and he is unconscious. Will you help us resolve this situation?” Now is the time to step in! You will get far fewer small things to deal with and just the issues that really require intervention!
Achieving Conflict Resolution Proficiency as a Team
As team members practice resolving conflicts with each other, they will become proficient at it. Their first reaction will no longer be to run to you, because working through things together will have become a habit, one at which they are very skilled. They will learn from your example that gossip is damaging, saying nice things to someone or about them builds up the whole team, conflicts should be resolved one on one and confidentially, and that you are a strong leader who can be trusted to step in when needed.
*Names have not been changed to protect anyone, but they have been used with permission. Also, as far as I know, Rhonda has never punched anyone.
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