How to Lead When Your Team Is Feuding

Angela Davis Sullivan


Dr. Rogers thought his team got along. But when he had two internal candidates for the same team leader position, the practice became a warzone.

Deborah, the candidate who did not get the job, went on the offensive. She started spreading rumors about Joanna, the successful candidate. She got other team members to side with her. Meanwhile, Joanna’s friends leaped to her defense.

Suddenly the practice was divided into feuding factions, and the few team members in the middle were being pressured to take sides. How could Dr. Rogers become the kind of leader who could restore order and have a happy, functional practice once more?

When your team starts to feud, it puts you, as the practice owner, in a difficult spot. You hired these people because they were good at their jobs and contributed the necessary skills to the practice. You want all of them on your team.

But when the office becomes a battlefield, moods, production, and clinical standards all suffer. To end the feud, heal the team, and improve the practice culture, you’re going to have to become a better, stronger leader.

Strong Leaders Don’t Permit Bullying

To restore order to the practice, you have to make it clear that bullying is not permitted. Gossip and accusations can be a form of bullying. If you allow it to continue, you send the message that kindness isn’t important in the practice. You may even leave yourself open to legal action from the bullied employee.  

Your team agreements should state that bullying is always unacceptable. If your practice is experiencing issues, it might be a good time to review the team agreements or add such a statement to them. 

Take the team memberswho are gossiping about their rivals aside and explain that bullying is not permitted in the workplace. Do this one on one so they won’t be embarrassed. Explain in clear, calm terms how their words and actions are damaging the practice.

Remind them that feelings are neither professional or unprofessional, but how they choose to act on those feelings in the workplace can become unprofessional and damage their future career prospects. Also, remind the team that you all agreed to support one another and take great care of patients. Your focus should be on how you support one another and on making sure that all patient experiences are amazing.  

Strong Leaders Can Justify Their Decisions 

To help heal the practice, Dr. Rogers will need to share information about how he chose Joanna, but in a positive way that does not denigrate Deborah. For instance, he can send out an email to all staff congratulating Joanna on the promotion and listing the specific qualities she has that made her the best fit for the position. Have a team meeting and celebrate the promotion. Show how the new role will benefit the team and your patients.

Whenever there’s an interpersonal conflict over one of your management decisions, you can diffuse the conflict by providing concrete reasons for the decision. “Joanna took 5 credits of college classes in this area in her spare time” is harder to start an argument over than “I just felt Joanna was the better fit.”

Strong Leaders can Empathize with Both Parties

Once an employee disagreement has become a full-scale feud, it’s hard to assign fault. Instead, have each of the main parties into your office individually. Ask open-ended questions, and take time to listen to their responses.

What triggered the anger and shame? What underlying issues contributed to the feud? What can you do to help these employees become more professional in the workplace? Remember to focus on what is great about these two team members. What strengths do they each bring to the team? How can they partner for practice success?

Strong Leaders Build Bridges

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership consultant Liane Davey recommends that these individual meetings be geared to an eventual meeting between both feuding parties. Once these employees understand their own hurt feelings, disappointed expectations, and prior assumptions, it’s possible to bring the heads of the two factions together.

They may never become best friends, but the goal is to give them tools so they can work together for the good of the practice in spite of their interpersonal conflicts. Give them concrete ways to refocus the relationship, with phrases like: 

  • I know you both make patient care a high priority.
  • You both have unique gifts and talents that you bring to the practice.
  • You’re both capable adults and have mentored other team members.
  • You both can work professionally in difficult situations. 

Have them suggest ways to improve the working relationship. Remind them that other team members look up to them, and the way they treat each other sets the tone for the practice and, ultimately, for how the team treats patients. Review your team agreements and make sure both team members are committed to them. 

Strong Leaders Can Communicate to the Practice as a Whole

After you’ve gotten the main combatants on the same page, it’s time to end the feud for the practice as a whole. Plan a social event or party that will encourage team bonding. Use icebreakers or motivational speakers to encourage members of rival factions to bond with each other and see each other as human again.

Encourage positive, friendly interactions between team members, and don’t be afraid to call out negative interactions when you see them. Set an example in your own interactions. Praise the team members who aren’t engaged in toxic or feuding behavior, and be positive and polite in all of your interactions. Have fun and encourage interaction between team members. Have the two team members who were feuding be positive and set an example for the entire team. 

When All Else Fails, Strong Leaders Can Fire Well

In most cases, these steps can stop a feud and return your practice to health. But what do you do when you have employees who refuse to empathize with their rivals, who continue bullying behavior even after being warned that it’s unprofessional, and who refuse to put patient well-being above petty grievances?

In these cases, all you can do is document, document, document, and prepare to fire. An employee who regularly starts feuds or identifies coworkers as rivals is not considering the best interests of the practice or the patients.

If you’ve tried to talk to them and they cannot or will not change, you can’t keep them on the team. They’re damaging their teammates and the overall culture of the practice. Once you’ve got documentation in place, you have no choice but to fire them.

It hurts, because it doesn’t return the practice to the status quo from before the feud. But it may be the only way to protect your other employees from bullying and drama. Being a leader means being willing to make these kinds of tough decisions when the practice is depending on you to restore stability and culture.

You probably didn’t cause the employee feud. You certainly didn’t encourage it. But unless you take your leadership skills to the next level and deal with the issue promptly and directly, you will be responsible for the long-term damage the feud does to your practice.

Ms. Davis Sullivan is a practice management consultant with more than 30 years of experience in both the clinical and business sides of the dental industry and the author of Coming Home to a Better Practiceavailable through She is a certified trainer for Forte’ communication styles and for John Maxwell’s management philosophy.

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