Oral Health Group

Taking your team from to conflict to chemistry

July 1, 2007
by Peter Barry, CMC, RRDH

Are team conflict and egos getting in the way of your goals? Are differences and self-centeredness dividing your team and causing you headaches? Are tensions and adversity weakening your team and its performance? Leading organizations today are realizing that it’s difficult to achieve the level of teamwork needed to really excel as a business unless you 1st deal with the all too common destructive behaviors that fuel unresolved conflicts in the workplace.

Far too many people trade their life, and a bit of their soul, for a pay cheque. They tolerate endless hours of meaningless work, disappointing relationships, conflicts, gossip and frustration so they can have fun on the weekend and during their two-week vacation. Similar frustrations hold true for managers and practice owners; far too many go home at night feeling frustrated and disappointed because of the conflicts at work, the lack of creativity and productivity, and the loss of progress and profits. For many in the game of dentistry this is what they endure and live with each day at the office. Keep in mind these conflicts do not just exist at an adversarial level. You can like a co-worker and still experience unmet expectations or little discourtesies that fester and build frustration into your work environment over time.


Things don’t have to be this way. Feeling connected and getting along is the most important ingredient on the path to functioning as a high performing team that achieves collective results. Before game 1 of a recent 7 game NBA finals series the announcer in an interview with the great “Doctor J” (Julius Irving / retired basketball legend) asked him his pick for winning the series and what he felt the keys to victory will be. Doctor J’s response was compelling. In an impassioned and spirited pre-game tone he said either team can win the series, “the key to victory will be 10 players who play in sync with each other, in sync with the coach in sync with the organization and with one goal.” Wow; is this requirement any different when we are playing the game of dentistry with our co-workers? When ever we come to work, we in a sense are suiting up and stepping on a playing field with our teammates. Each person in the practice plays an important role in the big picture of what we are trying to achieve for our patients and as a business in our community. Our collective level of unity and connection will have a tremendous impact on our effectiveness as a team. Connection in the workplace will significantly affect a team’s morale, stress and the level of fulfillment people draw from their role in the practice.

As a Practice Mastery Coach, the most common desire I hear from owners, managers and team members alike is that “we need to be more united… more connected.” Its relationships and communication challenges that seem to be a common recurring theme that people wish to develop within their business. Today people are realizing more and more that to really accelerate the growth of your business you must first grow the people within your business then together as a more synchronized united team you can take your business anywhere.

Prior to beginning the implementation process I candidly interview each member of the team to discover what is going on in the hearts and minds of the people who will be at the center of any positive change initiatives. The underlying team dynamics, relationship issues and communication challenges begin to surface. These discoveries often come as a surprise to people, especially to practice leaders and managers. I frequently hear things like… “I had no idea this was going on” or “I had no idea they felt this way.” Sometimes it’s just one person who is bringing down the morale and operational ability of the entire team but more often it’s a series of clicks and subgroups that have evolved and are fragmenting the team’s effectiveness, two common ones being clinical team vs. business team and assistants vs. hygienists.

The question we must explore is “why do these conflicts occur in the first place? If we know they fragment the team into sub-groups, reducing cooperation and unity; why do we let them happen?” People often say to me “we are all really good caring people who like each other yet we experience these co-worker interpersonal issues.” It is important for us to understand that you don’t have to be a bad person or have bad intentions to get caught up in a conflict. The dental practice by design is a very intimate setting where people with diverse backgrounds and unique personalities are required to communicate and work together at a very interdependent level. The things we do, the things we don’t do, and the way we do them have a significant impact on our co-workers’ ability to perform their jobs smoothly and at a high level. The major advantage a team has over an individual is its diversity of knowledge, skills, views, and ideas. Unfortunately with this diversity comes potential for conflict. Conflict arises from our differences. When highly skilled individuals come together at work to play a team game their differences can contribute to the creation of conflict. This conflict immediately begins to fragment and divide the team. However, we must understand that this so called conflict in work teams is not necessarily destructive or a bad thing. It can lead to innovative new ideas and approaches to operational processes and challenges. Conflict, in this sense, can be considered positive, as it facilitates the surfacing of important issues and provides opportunities for people to strengthen their connections while developing their communication and interpersonal skills. Conflict only becomes negative if it is left to escalate to a point where people begin to feel defeated, combative and territorial (my job-your-job).

It is my observation that conflicts usually arise from communication failures which include poor listening skills; insufficient sharing of information; differences in interpretation and perception; and nonverbal cues being ignored or missed. It is important to understand that regardless of the scenario conflict is not an external set of events that we have the misfortune of being exposed to. It is more an internal process that is driven by our thoughts and attitude. People create conflict based on how they choose to interpret a situation and based on the approach they choose to take when dealing with it. Let’s look at 17 very powerful guidelines for dealing more positively with a co-worker issue.

* Speak only to that person and discuss it privately, not publicly.

* Address it as soon as possible.

* Do not address it while either person is in an emotionally charged state.

* Communicate your concerns openly and honestly without sugarcoating or nursing a silent personal agenda.

* Avoid being defensive. “LISTEN” to each other and acknowledge each others views even if you don’t agree.

* Don’t get personal. Avoid character labels and name calling … i.e. “you are lazy,” “you don’t think,” “you don’t care.” Focus on the behavior not the person.

* Speak to one issue at a time. Don’t overload the person.

* Deal only with actions the person can change…asking the impossible only builds frustration into your relationship.

* Once you’ve made your point don’t keep repeating it.

* Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm signals you are angry at people not their actions… may cause them to resent you.

* Avoid playing “gotcha” type games.

* Avoid generalizations like “ALWAYS / NEVER.” They usually detract from accuracy and make people defensive.

* Present criticisms as suggestions or questions if possible.

* Don’t forget the complements.

* Don’t apologize for the confrontational meeting… doing so detracts from it and indicates you are no
t sure you had the right to express your concerns.

* Be able to forgive. Release yourself and your emotions from the burden of chronic dissatisfaction and frustration by practicing the art of forgiveness on a daily basis.

* Finally and most importantly; be aware of how you interpret situations. Always ask yourself… “what meaning have I attached to this?”… a positive one or a negative one. “Could this mean something else?” “Do I have all the information?” Be prepared to listen.

Instead of “conflict resolution skills” I prefer to call these “connection management guidelines” since there is no “CONFLICT” until we begin applying the destructive behaviors that reduce important issues to a personal and adversarial level. The ultimate question we must always ask ourselves before a confrontation is “do I want to be right or do I want to be happy.” If your goal is to be happy then focus on staying connected. Communicate with a core desire to build cooperation into your relationship by learning more about each other. Connection Management is a proactive way of growing your business by strengthening the teamwork and unity of your people.

Peter Barry is a Practice Mastery Coach and founder of Successful Practice Architects. He is the creator of “The Dental Olympics Advantage Growth & Development Programs.” He is also a member of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants.

peter@practicemastery.com / 416-568-5456

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