How is your medical staff getting along?
There’s a reason we ask. In our work with medical groups, we often find a quiet but pervasive atmosphere of conflict within the individual practices. Sometimes this tense environment is specific to one practice, which means that medical group administrators may be unaware of the conflict or unable to see how it affects the image and culture of the medical group as a whole.
It’s only natural that the realities of office stress, productivity burdens, and service expectations might create situations of frustration and resentment among team members. But when conflict goes unresolved, bad feelings fester and bickering increases, creating a toxic work environment and compromising productivity.
So, what’s at the root of these medical staff conflicts? And how can we foster positive communication in our practices?
Roots and Consequences
Medical office conflict tends to manifest in the form of bickering or resentment. Sometimes it’s contained within the front office; more often it exists between the front and back staff, especially when clinical and clerical staff members have no real concept of one another’s responsibilities and stressors. With a lack of sensitivity toward what they view as the “other side,” staff members become less tolerant and less flexible. They stop working collaboratively, and, before long, the finger pointing begins.
There’s no question that an atmosphere of taking sides, disregarding the work or stress of others, and focusing on the negative can affect morale. But the consequences don’t end there. We are often on our best behavior with a new patient, but how are we with the established patient? Do we share too much? Staff members tend to let their guard down with familiar patients, and a bickering office can quickly lose patients. Now not only the practice but the brand of the entire medical group is at risk.
Minimizing Conflict for Good
The quiet culture of medical office conflict may be common, but that’s no reason to consider it a given. Ignoring underlying tension among medical office staff members often leads to a negative work environment that can decrease employee satisfaction and repel even the most loyal patient. On the flip side, when you take steps to consciously tear down the barriers between sides by encouraging open communication and nurturing a culture of accountability, you create an atmosphere where staff members can do their best work.
As a first step, talk to your practice managers about ways to recognize, address, and prevent office conflict. We encourage you to share the following tips with your managers:
- Provide well-defined communication about tasks and responsibilities. Make sure everyone has a clear understanding of their own role and the roles of every staff member in the office.
- Be open and consistent about the work culture you expect. Let staff members know that, even when disagreements or frustrations arise, you anticipate that they will act professionally and treat one another with respect.
- Keep in mind that everyone needs to hear the same message, even the staff member who has been there for years and believes her job is safe.
- Avoid making assumptions. When a staff member brings a situation to your attention, wait to determine a course of action until you’ve heard the perspective of all parties.
- Go to the source. It’s best to avoid discussing a specific incident with staff members who were not directly involved.
- Avoid making accusations or putting staff members on the defense, which will only exacerbate the issue instead of solving it.
- Be a good listener—and use more than just your ears. Notice when attitudes change; pay attention to staff members’ body language as you interact with them (and as they interact with one other).
- Remember that bickering is an outward manifestation of a deeper problem that has been simmering for some time. Although it’s not necessary to address every minor squabble, it is important to keep your antennae up and pay attention to the way staff members are communicating and interacting.
- Set an example for your practice by putting boundaries in place and communicating openly with staff members.
Although it would be nice to ignore or downplay office tension, bickering and other forms of staff conflict don’t tend to go away on their own. Open communication and team building will always help; but developing a standard for behavior—and expecting it daily—will produce a strong culture of camaraderie and accountability within the practice that sets an example for the entire group of medical practices.