Conflict Resolution Strategies in the Dental Practice, Part 1: Employee vs. Employee  

DATE: Oct 22, 2018
AUTHOR: Dr. Ryder Waldron 

While many relationships thrive in the close confines of a dental office, conflicts can sometimes arise. Unfortunately, few things can drag down the office morale faster than a staff dispute. That's why it's important for dental professionals to have a few conflict resolution strategies in their back pockets to resolve issues before they escalate.

Handling Office Conflicts Proactively

Some of the causes of conflicts I have experienced include:

  • One staff member taking issue with another's work ethic
  • A staff member not treating coworkers equally
  • Dishonesty
  • Backbiting and gossip
  • Misunderstandings
  • Selfishness

For example, I ask my employees to wear matching scrub uniforms each day, but a few years into my career I had an employee who would complain when it was time to update them. She didn't like having to pay for scrubs (even though she got a monthly uniform allowance), was antagonistic about her colleagues' selections and wouldn't offer any suggestions herself.

At first, rather than do anything to help the situation, I just hoped that my employees would figure it out themselves. They didn't, and every six months I would feel the stress. After a few rounds of this, I was fed up. I didn't like the negative feelings that festered in the office because of it.

Finally, I offered the solution of letting each staff member pick a set of scrubs on a rotating schedule on the condition that no one could object to anyone else's choice. It was an uncomfortable conversation to have with the staff, but afterwards there was no more contention and people looked forward to expressing their own personalities with their uniform choice. If only I'd stepped in sooner!

How to Mediate a Conflict

If you do need to step in, I find it is best to first meet with each staff member separately and get every side of the story. This way you can avoid the coworkers involved interrupting each other by pleading their case or disputing the other side's account.

Then, you can bring those staff members together to come to a solution as a group. You may already have a solution in mind, but listen to each person's side and ideas for change. It is important to do what is best for the practice while also being empathetic to each staff member.

Building Good Relationships

Of course, avoiding conflicts altogether is best for the practice and its staff. The best way to foster a positive environment is to build good relationships. Spend time together doing something fun outside of work, such as having dinner, going to a movie or challenging yourselves with an escape room. Working together to solve an escape room's puzzle is an entertaining and effective team-building experience, and it definitely doesn't feel like work!

Another way to build good relationships is to institute a monthly bonus program based on the practice's production. When everyone is working toward a reward, they get excited to achieve it and look for ways to help each other.

Monthly Meetings

They may not seem like conflict resolution strategies, but asking your team for ideas and scheduling monthly staff meetings to share them in are two more ways to build morale. Regular staff huddles are a good opportunity to do some of the following:

  • Discuss the month's goals.
  • Talk over any problems or ways the practice could improve.
  • Go to lunch as a team.
  • Take a continuing education course or an interpersonal communications course together.
  • Get input from the staff for fun marketing ideas.

I also like to celebrate each staff member for something they accomplished during the previous month. It may be something as simple as getting a difficult patient to pay their copay or helping a colleague during a busy day. The recognition they receive motivates them to do even more to help the practice and their coworkers succeed.

Setting Staff Expectations

When hiring new staff members, it is important to make sure their personalities work well with established staff. Have the interviewees work a day or two in your office as part of the interview process. Observe how they interact and communicate with the current staff. I also like to do a three-month performance review for new clinicians and other employees, as well a yearly review to address any potential issues I have noticed.

Finally, keep a thorough employee manual that sets clear expectations for all employees and require everyone to re-read it every year. Having straightforward objectives sets the groundwork for a successful team.

Dental offices can be hectic, stressful places. They can also be energizing and rewarding. Spending time on team-building activities can help a team avoid conflicts, lessen them when they do occur and create a successful and happy office.