Next steps: staff communication

When small niggles in your practice blow up into a row between staff members, do you think, ‘This could easily have been prevented?’

Fortunately for most practices, conflict between staff happens rarely, but it can have damaging effects if it does. In this article, read tips on how to improve communication, prevent problems, and develop positive practices.

“It’s not fair!” Does that cry go up in your practice? It might not be in quite the same words: “She always has Fridays off,” “He never puts the bins out,” “She doesn’t pull her weight”. Whatever the complaint, managing staff isn’t the same as being a parent, but sometimes it can feel like you are continually dealing with petty squabbles. If you think, ‘Everything in my practice is lovely’, don’t stop reading. All too often conflict can be triggered by something apparently tiny that only becomes an issue slowly and over time. Read on for tips and steps to nip issues in the bud, and positive practices to develop a great working relationship with the whole team.

To start, be clear about what you expect each member of staff to do, and to what standard. This might mean that you need to review your current job descriptions. Each member of staff will benefit from a personalised staff handbook. This can outline things that apply to everyone, like Health & Safety or details of the pension scheme, but it can also be customised to include individual roles and responsibilities. If you haven’t got a staff handbook, you can get ideas for what it should include by browsing online, or call in a consultant to develop one for you. A good exercise for everyone is to note down the jobs in practice and assess who does what. That way you can see if the best person for the job is doing it. Some tasks may be able to be moved, freeing up time for those who are busy, and liberating more time to deal with customers.

Once you know that everyone is clear about their duties, book in scheduled times to meet with members of staff. Take this as a chance to set targets for each person, listen to any issues that have arisen, and keep everyone motivated. Each member of staff should have their own personal goals. For a receptionist, this might be as simple as ‘greet everyone within the first minute of them entering the practice’, with a longer term goal of starting to get her first qualification. You and the staff member need to have a clear record of the goals and refer back to them at each meeting.

If a staff member seems overwhelmed or isn’t making progress, work with them to break a large goal down into small steps, breaking things up until it is achievable to that person. The annual culmination to regular individual meetings may be a performance review. If this is the case in your practice, be clear about this from the start, and explain how the short and medium goals will feed into the review. Be clear about how this might relate to salary increases, bonuses or other staff incentives.

David Samuel of Eyesite is an independent practice owner. He has been in practice for 30 one years and is passionate about good leadership customer delight. He explains about the positive things that he and his team do to ensure everyone works together well: “We have teamship rules in the business, and section our appraisal system where people score themselves on good behaviour in this area. For example, ‘I always treat my colleagues with respect’, ‘I always help colleagues in need’. Staff score themselves out of five. Their manager talks to them about how they have scored, and how it can be improved. It reinforces our company ethic of teamwork and working together. Another section of the appraisal document looks at working with your manager. It asks, ‘What could you do to help your manager, what could they do to help you?’ This creates an open discussion within the appraisal where people can share constructive criticism, and it works very well. The teamship rules form part of our ethics and mirror the way we treat customers and patients so there is consistency.”

As well as individual meetings, hold regular staff meetings. Don’t just rely on group sessions, however, because quieter members of staff may hold back, and it means that any conflicts have to be resolved in public. Use the staff meeting to work on goals for the whole team. Consider each individual’s needs when working on a training strategy for staff meetings. Try to use each person’s strengths and ask different individuals to lead training sessions on topics where they are strong. Topics covered don’t always have to be about technical and clinical matters: add in training on achieving your goals and communications to help staff develop all round skills.

From time to time, it can help you to review the way different members of staff are developing and being developed, both within a single practice and across the group as a whole if you manage more than one practice. This can help you avoid conflict due to disparities in salary, for example, or some people getting training opportunities while others don’t. It can also help you identify areas where few people have a particular skill, so you can plan for further training or recruitment as needed.

Problems will occasionally arise, and it can help to be prepared. Have you thought about how to deal with the person who won’t carry their load? Or what you might do with a team member who is always late, or a receptionist who lingers in the tea room, letting others staff the desk? Particularly if you are new to management it can be good to explore some of these scenarios and consider what might be appropriate actions. For a start, you may want to find out if there is a reason for a change in behaviour. Is there a problem at home that is causing lateness? Does the receptionist lack confidence or skills? Create plans for improvement, breaking actions down into baby steps

David Samuel says, “We have a very open system where people can speak to managers or their peers. We aim that everyone has someone to go to if they are struggling or need to offload. I believe it is important to look at the issue not the personalities – try to take the personalities out of the question, and it can cool any heat.”

David has another suggestion to head off personality clashes at an early stage. He says, “We’ve done Insight personality profiling for all of the team. Everyone has shared their profile – the way that an individual behaves on a good day, how they might behave on a bad day. I’m a mix of sunshiney yellow and firey red. It works well in practice. I was being grouchy, and someone said to me, ‘Are you being a bit red on purpose?’ I realised how I was behaving, walked out of the room, and came back in to start the meeting again. The great thing about it is that everyone has good points and bad points, everyone behaves differently under stress, you don’t know if someone’s dog is at the vets, for example. I like to assume that everyone is a great human being and try to help them. If someone is behaving strangely there are often other conflicts going on, and it helps if you try to understand that. Sharing our profiles has been massive for us. It gives us all an understanding of the strength in a team made up of different types of people.”

So, if you have a good system of appraisals and meetings, and are also getting to understand your different staff personalities, what else can you do? Positive incentives offered across the practice or group can help reinforce good behaviour and make staff keen to achieve goals. This could range from buying the staff their favourite biscuits or cakes at the end of each week where you achieve targets, to a meal or experience at the end of a set period where goals are met. Ask the staff what incentives work for them. If you don’t currently work to targets it is worth exploring the pros and cons. By nature people like to feel that they are making progress, and small, clear achievable targets can help staff feel that they are making a difference, just as much as it might help your bottom line!