Leadership strife: How to defuse office conflicts

January 1, 2009

Physicians and managers are accustomed to dealing with staff members who aren't happy at work and can't seem to get along, but what do you do when it's the physicians and management who are at odds?

Develop and implement a plan

First, it's important to recognize that major problems are usually the result of disenchantment or a conflict that did not get the attention it needed. Look beyond the immediate situation and see what lies beneath. Gather as much information as possible to bring clarity to the problem, and then get the communication flowing.

It is suggested that the manager and one of the physicians work together to define the problem, the solution, and the best way to execute a plan.

If the manager is the problem, select a physician leader that is armed with good communication skills, is capable of gathering facts promptly, and will make the necessary commitment.

Each member of the leadership team should be interviewed independently and listened to; they need to tell the story from their perspective. This is your opportunity to identify the underlying cause, whether it's the result of a turf battle, a lack of confidence, loss of control, or misconception. Find out what each member of the team thinks would be a reasonable solution and let them know that once you've evaluated the situation, you will bring them together to reach a resolution.

It is important to involve key staff members as they become aware of situations in which physicians or the manager are unhappy and not getting along, as such situations affect both performance and attitudes. Let these staffers do the talking, and be a good listener. Ask open-ended questions that don't define the problem or the cause. You want to hear what staff has to say, so let them tell their story. It is only by gaining these opinions and this information that you can determine where the common threads are.

Clarify what is being compromised because of the strife:

The solution to the problem cannot begin until you define what is wrong in the practice and what actions are necessary to set things right. The sooner you act, the easier any difficulties will be to address.

Once the information is gathered, a plan must be developed that objectively defines the problem, the expected outcome, and the essential steps (and management support) to achieve the desired result.

Now it's time to meet and have an honest discussion, allowing each person time to talk, based on specific rules that eliminate the tendency to be accusatory or result in one person controlling the conversation. Set time parameters and have an agenda. The leader selected to facilitate this meeting must be an effective mediator and be given the authority and respect essential to manage the meeting.