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Ask Our Authors: Interpersonal conflict in our workplaces

Dec. 2, 2018
Because dental professionals work so closely with one another, interpersonal conflict can be common in practices. It is often a serious issue because it can affect patient care negatively. Four of our advisory board members weigh in on how you can productively approach conflict, even when your boss won’t.

Most dental professionals find themselves navigating tense interpersonal issues in the office at least once during the course of their careers. This isn’t unique to dentistry, of course, but its potential impact on patients can put more at stake. Sometimes difficult practice staff can even drive patients away or impact the course of treatment. What suggestions do you have for addressing such situations constructively? What if the person in charge, such as a dentist-employer, isn’t willing to address the issue?

Amber Metro-Sanchez, BA, RDH

Dentistry is a field that is prone to conflict among staff members, as we tend to work in close contact with one another on a daily basis. I work in a small dental practice, so if one person is having an issue with another staff member, we all feel it. In larger offices, conflict is also a common problem that could easily lead to recurrent employee turnover. In either scenario, patient care may be affected if the behavior influences job performance.

I have experienced a situation between two dueling coworkers in which they completely refused to communicate with each other. I tried to not take any sides, but the environment became quite tense and uncomfortable regardless. In the end, both were fired after they refused to work together or accept any responsibility for their situation.

A key to a successful dental practice is strong leadership from the dental practice owner. If the dentist chooses to distance him- or herself from conflict among staff members, he or she is allowing further problems to fester. The best course of action is to address the situation as soon as possible, whether it be through an office manager or directly addressing the staff member yourself. This should be a stated work policy so everyone understands how to address potential conflicts.

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Sometimes it is simply a misunderstanding that causes an issue. Recently, I rushed out of work at the end of the day, and a staff member commented that I didn’t help anyone out before leaving. I had told my boss that my car was finished early at the body shop, and I needed to leave quickly to make it to the shop before they closed. I failed to tell anyone else. Once the situation was explained, everyone was happy, and the potential conflict was easily resolved.

If you find that your first attempt to address the issue fails, it is essential for the dental employer to step in and find a resolution. He or she can act as a mediator and bring the staff members together to talk. This involves identifying the problem and suggesting a positive corrective measure. The employer should act as a leader throughout this process, because if he or she chooses not to, it is likely that one of the employees will choose to go elsewhere. Too often, valuable employees are lost in this way and the employer is left with a malicious staff member who continues this cycle with someone else.

In dentistry, our aim is to provide patients with the best quality care and we tend to do this better when we work together. Dentistry has no time for ongoing conflict, and quick resolutions are a necessity!

Amber Auger, MPH, RDH

In my experience as both a consultant and a dental hygienist, tense interpersonal issues are common when working on a team. When people are expecting one thing and getting another, it can create extreme tension in the office. I find that often this takes place due to lack of leadership, office systems and policies, and accountability. Employees often love their patients but hate their work environment, which decreases their quality of life.

When the tension escalates in the office, the overall patient experience suffers, and patients can even be spoken to unprofessionally. If possible, I believe it is always helpful to talk to the person (or people) involved in the conflict directly. Approaching that person with an even tone and using messages that focus on how you are feeling can often help. I understand that going to that person directly is not always an option and can sometimes escalate tension. This is why every office needs a point of contact for the employees, often called a team leader or office manager.

In cases where the employer isn’t willing to address the issue, it is important to remember that you can respect another employee without being his or her best friend. I have been in offices where I strive to be a team player even when others are not, and I have also chosen to leave practices due to lack of proper leadership in an environment that has become toxic. It is important to remember that your mental health matters, and a healthy work environment is a basic need that every person shares. If the situation at the office continues to escalate without a change in sight, I suggest looking for alternative employment. No job is worth compromising your mental health.

Kristin Goodfellow, RDH

The big picture of office communication is that everyone is coming back to work tomorrow. So how do you approach these situations in a way that improves your relationship with your coworker, rather than hurts it? This is the question that should always be present in your mind as you try to solve interoffice issues. Ideally, there should be a safe space for staff members to hash out problems (this includes the leaders of the practice). Even if you absolutely love your coworkers, there will be days that you disagree. Starting a weekly meeting where you can talk about issues that may have popped up would be a great first step in improving the whole team.

However, since every office works so differently, a weekly meeting may be something you’re already doing or just not an option. There are ways to take immediate action, and it starts with you. Though the actions of others may be impacting your day, your reaction to them can change. Know that being upset means that you have a chance to learn something or make a change for the better.

For example, rather than getting upset at the front desk for adding a patient to your schedule at the last minute, go to the front desk and say, “Let’s look at the schedule tomorrow and find some times that I can squeeze patients in if emergencies pop up.” This doesn’t mean that you’re going to magically find an hour on your schedule the next day. But doing this allows you to have control over when you see those patients. This takes away the surprise, and you can plan your day accordingly.

Office communication can make or break a team. In the last-minute patient example, the problem for you, as the clinician, was that you had to rush around the office. The problem for the front is that they had a patient in pain pressing them to come in that day and had to find a time for that patient to be seen. There are always two sides, no matter how thin you slice it. You’re both doing your jobs and trying to provide excellent patient care. So as you navigate these issues, try to keep perspective and don’t act out of anger.

Staci Violante, MSDH, RDH

We have all found ourselves working with a difficult coworker at one time or another—one who is rude, critical of others, spiteful, lackadaisical, not a team player, and may even make our workday a living nightmare.

Whatever this person’s distressing attributes, the process of coexisting with him or her may be long and grueling for all involved. If coexisting is your resolution of choice, you must be willing to “forgive and forget” to defuse the already stressful and tense environment. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong; the most important thing is that there is a peaceful environment in which all patients can receive optimum quality care, and that the office runs smoothly and effortlessly. It is important that you try to be the better person because more often than not this unprofessional, difficult coworker will never be able to change, nor put the patients and the office first.

If you love working in the office, ignore the behavior if you can and maintain a positive attitude with the rest of the staff. Document any incidents or negative encounters so you can bring it to your boss if you have to. It is the patients who are important, and keeping them happy is all that matters.

If your job is becoming progressively difficult because of office issues that are not being addressed by the doctor or office manager, here are a few things to consider.

• Try to put yourself in the doctor’s or manager’s shoes. Perhaps he or she is just too nice and doesn’t like hurting feelings. This person may shy away from confrontations or simply be passive, hoping the problems will sort out themselves.

• Talk to your coworkers. If your coworkers also are too frustrated by the manager’s reluctance to deal with issues, get the staff together to discuss the positive ways to help. A group dialogue that includes the employee in question could cause this person to consider the issues he or she is causing, without ever involving the boss.

• Talk to the office manager or doctor in charge. It is likely that he or she is not even aware there are any issues at all. If you explain and make the boss aware of what is going on and how it is affecting the office and your jobs, he or she may be more inclined to act on it.

This situation can be extremely frustrating; however, it is best to use your leadership skills to help guide you and your office. Working as a team is the best strategy to tackle any issues. Try to solve them together, especially if your boss will not get involved. Maintaining a stress-free environment is best not only for you and the staff, but more importantly, the patients.