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Discord Among the Team

by in GP Practice Management, HR - Human Resources, Staff, Team building

There have been a few forum threads recently about staff not getting on, ‘he-said-she-said’, treating each other unprofessionally and so on.

As managers, how do we deal effectively with these situations, and is there anything we can do to prevent them from happening?

So let’s get reactive before we get proactive…

Sadly, you can’t sit people down and literally knock their heads together until they see sense and start acting like grown-ups.

But you can do the first part and sit people down together – be it just two individuals or even a group of staff. In general, people are less keen to say something hurtful to a person’s face when given the opportunity. And you don’t need to be a professionally trained mediator to get people to talk to each other.

In the HR trade we call this a ‘facilitated discussion’. You, as the manager, are the facilitator and your aim is to get people to air their grievances in a safe environment and develop a way forward that they all can agree on. You set the ground rules for the discussion – i.e. be professional and courteous towards each other, be honest, and nothing leaves the room. You may have to nudge them into speaking but you shouldn’t interrupt them unless the ground rules are being broken. Try and keep them focused on a solution once the grievances have been aired, and try to keep them from going over old ground.

The majority of people are good-natured at heart and it’s important for them to understand the impact of their actions. Very few people, when accused of making another staff member miserable, will respond with anything but sadness. Those who do… well, they’re probably going to fall foul of your disciplinary policy sooner or later!

If involved in a one-to-one conversation with a staff member about behaviour you’ve witnessed or that’s been reported to you, try to keep it structured:

  • Explain the reason for the discussion (i.e. what you’ve witnessed / been made aware of)
  • Ask the employee for their take on events
  • Explain the impact of the employee’s behaviour (be it on an individual, the team, the working environment, the reputation of the practice, etc.)
  • Ask if there’s any support the employee might need to prevent a recurrence of this behaviour
  • Finish by explaining what you expect to see going forward – and what the potential ramifications will be if your expectations aren’t met

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of step 5. If you have someone who you feel is on the cusp of formal disciplinary action, this is your opportunity not only to potentially stop it, but also to provide a basis on which to move forward in that direction. It gives you the opportunity to explicitly state what the required level of conduct is and anything falling short of that will have ramifications.

So let’s put this into a real-life scenario to give it some context.

In a previous role I managed a junior HR advisor who was very disruptive in the team, never happy with how things were going, often gave out different advice to what our policies stated and when challenged about it was quite defensive and rude. So I sat her down to discuss the issue.

I explained that I’d been informed that she’d given advice to X manager in X department regarding X issue, but that the advice she’d given was not in line with the Trust’s policy. She said that the manager had “obviously” misinterpreted what she’d said.

So I asked her to talk me through her understanding of the relevant policy, whereupon it became apparent that she really didn’t know it well enough and had given the wrong advice. I told her that by doing so, a staff member had nearly had their pay stopped, which would have been an unlawful deduction in wages and would have landed us in very hot water with the unions, as well as potentially giving us a grievance to deal with. I asked her if she needed any further training on X policy to which she said she might well do. I said that was fine and we’d arrange a session where we’d go through it and I could answer any questions she might have.

I said that I’d often found her behaviour to be quite defensive when challenged about things she’d done, which I didn’t find helpful as I was trying to support her to excel in her role and that her response could sometimes create a barrier between us. I said I wasn’t the only person who’d noticed it, which I felt was a shame as she had a lot to offer the team but her attitude could sometimes make people feel that they couldn’t seek support from her. Naturally she was quite upset when she was told this, but I said I was only telling her because I knew she could address this and work on being a more approachable member of the team. I wrapped it up by saying that I wanted to support her but that she needed to come to me if she was unsure of anything, rather than giving out incorrect advice, and that I wanted her to think about how she works within the team and what image she puts across.

In the end, it turned out that she did just that, and within a year she’d secured a promotion and I was able to give her a glowing reference.

It’s important to remember that, as a manager, while the thought of having these discussions can seem daunting, the outcome doesn’t always have to be negative! And even if it is, the rest of the team will be thankful that you’ve tackled the issue.

How can we be proactive in keeping these issues from popping up?

There’s never going to be a 100% foolproof method for creating a harmonious team that works well together and never falls out. Sorry! But what you can do is influence the people you work with and those coming in. What I’m talking about is establishing a culture.

Workplace culture is incredibly important. Do your staff know what’s expected of them? Do they feel that they have a pleasant working environment? Do people want to come and work for you because they’ve heard about or seen what a lovely place it is?

This is all culture. And a key part of creating a culture is having an established set of values.

Most large organisations have a values statement. You’ll see it plastered all over their marketing materials, on their recruitment adverts, on their letterheads. But the key is not to just pay lip service to it; you need your staff to be the living embodiment of those values.

When I came into primary care, my practice didn’t have a values statement. It does now, and I don’t mind sharing it with you:

Respecting each other

Staff treat their colleagues, patients, visitors and stakeholders with respect at all times, recognising and valuing the contributions and experience of those with a vested interest in the practice. We will be friendly and polite, show appreciation and reward effort.

Supporting each other

We will communicate effectively, share information, involve and empower each other and support each other to achieve our mission. We will cooperate with each other to provide the best service to our patients and make the effort to maintain a positive working environment.

Working with positivity

We will be flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of the NHS and our patients. We will welcome and encourage innovations and embrace changes with a positive attitude. We will feed back our successes and celebrate them.

I chose these values in conjunction with my staff as we felt these were important to us. “Working with positivity”, granted, was mostly for my benefit as I knew I’d be bringing a lot of change with me and I wanted my staff to be open-minded.

You can develop your own values statement to reflect the culture you want to have, and I’d highly recommend getting your staff to contribute to the process, as the more they take ownership of the values the more they’ll embody them.

The values statement also provides a good basis for discussions with staff who aren’t happy or who are causing discord. You can say to that staff member, “That’s not how we want to work here. Our values are that we should respect and support each other and your behaviour goes against that.”

Arrange an all-staff training session with a focus on the values, how you embody them currently, what you do well and what you can do more of. Review an employee’s performance and behaviour in line with the values as part of the annual appraisal process.

When you recruit new staff, include a copy of the values in the induction pack or in your offer of employment letter, so they know right from the start what’s expected of them.

And be sure to reinforce the message yourself. You need to be the embodiment of your commitment, and when people compliment you or give you feedback, remind them that you’re the way you are because that’s what you all want for the practice.

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