How to Deal with Conflict on Your Dental Team

Roger P. Levin, DDS
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Like any business, dental practices will experience occasional team conflict. This discord can occur between two staff members, groups of staff members, or the doctor and a staff member. Or, a staff member simply may not behaving or performing properly. Whatever the nature of the conflict, many dentists and office managers ignore it until it reaches a crescendo that must be addressed or has become too difficult to resolve.

Deal with Conflict Directly

In my experience, the longer conflict festers, the worse and more irreversible it will be. So it should be the rule of thumb for all leaders, dentists, and office managers to deal with conflict immediately. This is particularly important for dental practices, as they are service businesses and conflict can result in less than acceptable service. 

Whenever conflicts are identified, take the time to sit down with the team member or members involved and discuss the situation. I fully understand how difficult (and uncomfortable) it can be to facilitate such a meeting. For an effective meeting that will help to resolve conflict in the best interests of all parties and your practice, I recommend the following four-step approach: 

  • Eliminate blame from the conversation: It’s easy to sit down with these team members and blame them for everything that’s wrong. Instead of pointing fingers, express your point of view. Explain that you have observed certain things and are concerned that there is some level of conflict or that there is a situation that’s affecting their ability to both perform their job and provide excellent service to patients. Assure them that you’re not blaming them in any way but simply need to understand what is going on. This helps team members to not feel or become defensive and opens the door for them to respond truly and honestly.
  • Simply listen: Listening can be difficult, but it will lead to resolution in many cases. Whatever your team members express, it should be noted and discussed. Whether they are right or wrong, their feelings are real and should be acknowledged. When people feel that they are being heard, they are much more open to accepting advice and constructive criticism. 
  • Create an improvement plan: The next step is to identify the changes in behavior or attitude that must be made. If it will help, the doctor or office manager can offer to mentor the team member or members. Whatever the plan is, make it clear that lack of good service or a bad attitude will not be acceptable. Resolving the conflict while maintaining excellent performance should be the team member’s sole focus. To ensure that the plan is on track, set a meeting for three to four weeks later to determine whether or not the necessary improvement has been made.
  • Follow up to assess the situation and make decisions: At the next conference, begin by thanking the person for meeting and then ask about the progress that has been made. It’s important that you give your honest assessment or perceptions in regard to that progress. If there is still room for improvement, avoid blame and discuss how the conflict can be fully resolved in everyone’s best interests. If there has been no improvement, this needs to be acknowledged as well. Although letting a staff member go is never pleasant, sometimes parting company is necessary and beneficial for everyone.

We have found that this approach more often than not results in improvement, helping team members stay with the practice, contribute at a high level, and resume providing excellent service with a great attitude.

Summary

When it comes to conflict, it’s always a matter of when and not if it will happen, especially in the workplace. Although you may want to avoid it, the best (and believe it or not easiest) way to address conflict is to do it immediately. Use these strategies for your best opportunity to resolve conflict without losing good team members or sacrificing great customer service. 

Dr. Levin is a third-generation general dentist and the founder and CEO of Levin Group Inc, a dental management consulting firm that has worked with more than 26,000 dentists. Dr. Levin, an internationally known dental practice management speaker, has written 65 books and more than 4,300 articles. He is also the executive founder of Dental Business Study Clubs—dentistry’s only all-business study clubs, the next generation of dental business education.

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