Managing conflict within your team

It could be said that it is human nature to want to be better than your peers. Rivalry involves an often long-lasting, competitive relationship between individuals or groups, and at its best, can improve motivation and output. However, working in veterinary practice will accentuate emotions and, given the pressures of the job, rivalry can quickly get out of hand and progress into conflict if it is not closely monitored.

Clinic leaders may not see conflict among employees, even if they ‘walk the practice’ on a regular basis. They are often not aware of the problem until it is directly brought to their attention by the employees concerned. These are the sort of scenarios that most practice leaders dread, and for the less experienced leader in particular, trying to resolve such HR problems can often seem very daunting. In reality, although such tasks are never enjoyable, they become less stressful and somewhat easier with experience. The trick is deal with it quickly and honestly before conflict starts to dictate the culture of the practice.

As a leader in your clinic, you will be seen as the person who has control over other people’s behaviour. While this is an impossible task – we can only control our own behaviour – we can certainly have influence over appropriate standards and acceptable codes of conduct at work.

Conflict manifests itself over a broad spectrum of behaviour and can often be traced to insecurities – particularly between close colleagues. At its least worrying, it can present itself as a temporary disagreement between two individuals, and this is the kind of conflict that is probably the easiest to deal with. A private meeting with each individual to discuss their feelings about the problem, before then bringing them together to facilitate a sensible, positive discussion on the way forward, can often solve the issue quickly. Often, a little reassurance is all that is needed to calm defensive attitudes.

Sometimes, however, rivalry is between two dominant personalities who often dislike each other and are too-ready to criticise and be overly competitive. This kind of situation is not sustainable in any team, and is it crucial to intervene. There are some characters who are determined to be the ‘top dog’ and who need constant bolstering-up of their ego. But for their unfortunate colleagues, feelings of guilt, inadequacy and failure prevail. Such individuals are often highly manipulative, and a common characteristic is that they will be charming to their superiors while being not-so-charming to their work colleagues. It is this trait that can make recognising the problem so difficult.
Such manipulative behaviour needs to be addressed immediately or the inevitable scenario of resignations will result. And when a new, replacement employee arrives, the situation will begin all over again.

It is important to establish exactly what the issues are and to record it in detailed, confidential notes. It is likely that if the employee has reached the stage of complaining to their manager, that the undermining has been going on for a significant amount of time. If this is the case, there should be enough evidence to justify asking the offending employee to attend a meeting where their actions are discussed. Remember, it is no good relying on hearsay; evidence is needed before reprimanding or disciplining an employee. If we fail to remain impartial and objective, we could unintentionally be guilty of bias.

It is possible that they will deny all knowledge of ever being critical or undermining their colleague, so it is important to be prepared for this. In some instances, this will mean bringing the two employees together to discuss the problem, but this needs to be carefully done and only with the consent of the ‘injured’ party. It may be that a meeting between the two employees and the manager enables a frank discussion about how the manipulative individual is upsetting their colleague, and that once they realise the result of their behaviour, they cease to act in this way. However, if there is no improvement in their behaviour, disciplinary action may be the only option.

An amount of healthy rivalry is good for productive work, but should it escalate into something more insidious, the practice leader needs to intervene quickly. The longer it is put off, the more difficult it will be to solve.