Work place relationships are not always harmonious and it is natural to experience occasional disagreements and conflicts. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in any office is managing working relationships. The truth is, working with other people is hard – even when you like them! However, poor work relationships can add unwelcome psychological stress which may have a detrimental effect on work performance, motivation levels, and overall job satisfaction, so it is important to not simply try to ignore the conflict.

As consultants, we are keenly aware of the impact they can have. Much of the work we do is very dependent on these relationships being healthy. For example, it is difficult to run a staff meeting focused on improvement with employees who are more interested in pointing fingers. It is impossible to gain buy-in for a new process if the employees are not convinced that the practice owner will follow through.

Like other types of relationships, the relationships in the workplace can be improved. The onus is on the practice owner to take a leadership role in the change of dynamics in the office.

As a first step, try implementing these strategies.  As you model this behaviour to your staff, challenge them to do the same with you and their coworkers

1. Validate the Person’s Feelings Before You Do Anything Else

Before responding to a negative comment or pushback, try imagining why someone might be acting the way they are. Identify how you would feel if you were in their position, and then validate that feeling.

For example, when you ask an employee to tidy up the dispensary before they leave for the day and they reply that a co-worker should do it. Before responding, first try to identify why they might be making this request. Maybe they feel like they are always the one asked to stay late. Maybe they have a commitment after work and are feeling stressed about making it on time. “I imagine that you are feeling overwhelmed.”

I know it sounds a little hokey, but this works wonders. By trying to empathize (even if you think the person is wrong) and then validating what they’re feeling, you will be able to shift your attitude from frustration to empathy.

The employee feels heard, too. Nine times out of ten, they’ll calmly reply, “Yes, I do feel overwhelmed.” It’s like identifying the feeling takes the hot air out of the situation. Reiterate the request and perhaps ask if they would like to come in early the next day to complete the task instead of staying tonight.

2. Say What You’re Actually Thinking—and Say it Clearly

To avoid awkward conversations, use this simple formula:

the change you’d like + why the current option isn’t working + why your preference is better

For example, an employee feels like it is too much work to bill directly to insurance. Constructive feedback is fine, but complaining won’t solve the issue. Phrase your response something like, “I’d like us to brainstorm a way to make this more manageable. I’d prefer if you provided me with specific feedback about what takes so long as that will help me to implement ways to make the process more manageable for you. In order to meet the needs of our patients and to ensure you get your bonus, we need to implement direct billing.”

As you become more comfortable telling people what does or doesn’t work for you, being more assertive will become easier. Even better, it will make your working relationships stronger and more honest.

Sometimes it is difficult to change the dynamics of the relationships because they are so deeply entrenched in the way that the office operates. In a few instances, we have recommended bringing in a third party mediator to help facilitate the creation of healthier working relationships. The third party listens to everyone’s point of view and then starts bringing the parties together to “air out the laundry”. It is surprising how effective this can be as it allows all parties to felt heard and makes them more ready to move forward.

While the concept may seem foreign initially, it makes sense.  Therapists are called upon everyday to guide people through challenging personal relationships.  The strategies and tools that they employ are effective for any type of relationship.

We have recommended and seen this type of intervention in a number of our offices.  The therapist offers each individual an opportunity to vent their concerns independently so they feel heard and validated. The therapist then mediates conversations between coworkers who aren’t seeing eye to eye. The therapist provides tools and feedback to help everyone move forward.

If you are having issues with relationships in your office, start by trying to change the dynamic yourself.  If that is not successful, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. The entire practice will benefit.

Kelly Hrycusko

Kelly Hrycusko

is the co-founder and managing partner of Simple Innovative Management Ideas (SIMI) Inc. and expert Practice Management contributor for Optik magazine. She can be reached at info@simiinc.com.