Conflict is a word that most of us shudder to say and many of us prefer to avoid at all costs. In a survey published by DVM360 in 2013, 51% of veterinary team members said that “most of us avoid conflict when we can but engage in difficult conversations when necessary.” So, for something that is so commonly avoided, why would it ever be considered a good thing?
The reality is that conflict is inevitable. It would be impossible for a veterinary team to function without any differences in clinical knowledge, work approaches, values, opinions, or personalities. So, it’s best to just accept that conflict will happen, it’s just a matter of when. Having this mindset is important, because addressing and resolving conflict is imperative to team effectiveness. When conflict is handled poorly, and the focus is on the people involved instead of the issue at hand, the team can become divided and patients can suffer. Poorly handled conflict can also erode team morale.
However difficult it can be to handle conflict, avoidance is not the answer. When people self-censor in order not to “hurt someone’s feelings” or “rock the boat”, disaster can occur. This is referred to as artificial harmony and is the equivalent of team paralysis. Team members become so reluctant to cause a problem by discussing a conflict that no forward progress is made. Often so much energy is spent “walking on eggshells” or not “speaking one’s mind” that it distracts from providing appropriate client and patient care.
Team members must accept that conflict is normal and does not necessarily lead to problems. While there will be some personal discomfort during the exchange of ideas, conflicts can often be resolved in a timely manner and with new ways of thinking stimulated within the team. Allowing team members to express their opinion and be heard by their peers facilitates buy-in with decisions. Even when the final decision is not the choice of every team member, they are often more accepting of the choice because their voice was heard.
Let me give an example of information conflict and how it can best be managed. Information conflict involves differing ideas, views, and opinions (e.g., how to manage a case, what information to provide a client, when to perform renovations or software upgrades). It can also involve a disagreement about the content of a decision (e.g., a newly hired team member). While someone might not agree with the viewpoint shared by another team member or a decision that was made, it is best to engage in an open conversation that invites sharing of information and ideas in a non-confrontational way.
During these conversations, team members are urged to use arguments that are precise and as factually oriented as possible (e.g., reference to published literature or personal experience). Arguments that persuade primarily based on emotion (e.g., I feel that my way is the right way) should be avoided. If team members become defensive, they concentrate more on defending their point of view, rather than openly evaluating other views. Defensive attitudes prevent team members from gaining new insight and understanding and create further divisiveness among the team. When an argument turns into a personal win-or-lose “word war”, team members are no longer concerned with resolving problems rationally.
Instead, inquiry and accurate information must be shared in the hopes of demonstrating a desire to understand the other viewpoint and focus on factual information that could affect the situation and those involved. Team members are encouraged to contribute what they know, feel, and value. Team members must also be aware of timing by not wasting time or introducing issues when there is no time to work on them. Time is a precious resource and should be regarded as such by all team members.
Open body language and open-ended questions are important so that team members feel encouraged to provide information freely. Nodding heads, keeping an interested facial expression, and saying “that’s so interesting, tell me more” are good ways to get the most out of these interactions.
And most importantly, remember that failure to reach consensus is not an actual failure. Two team members can disagree on the management of a case, but still come to understanding of each other’s reasoning and accept that there are many ways to manage different cases with pros and cons for every scenario.
So, the next time you find yourself disagreeing with a fellow team member or colleague, smile and say “that’s fascinating, I’d love to hear more.” This will serve to enhance openness and collegiality within your team and prevent the artificial harmony that comes from silently walking away.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary team members. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.