Author: Derek A. Murray, Director of Professional Services

If anything is inevitable in an SPD, it’s conflict. The SPD exists to serve other departments. Its functions profoundly impact the work of other departments, and the work of other departments profoundly impact the SPD. This makes the SPD a striking point of conflict.

Pile on top of that the need for SPD managers to initiate change within their departments—and to proactively advocate for that change to administrators and affected departments—and conflict is nothing short of guaranteed.


Is Conflict Bad?

It’s easy to hear “conflict” and immediately think of knights storming a castle or an argument on the street that turns ugly, but conflict does not have to spell destruction. In fact, if a conflict is managed well, it can serve as an opportunity to improve on processes and relationships that may have otherwise remained inefficient and dysfunctional.

According to an article in Radiology Management, “Conflict provides employees with critical feedback on how things are going. When viewed in a positive context, even personality conflicts may provide information to the healthcare manager about what is not working in the organization.”

Let’s say a conflict arises between the OR and the SPD because, according to the OR, certain surgical instruments aren’t being reprocessed in time for scheduled operations and, according to the SPD, those same instruments aren’t being returned to the SPD with enough time to properly reprocess them. When the conflict is first expressed, it may be by staffers complaining that the other department staff “aren’t doing their job.” But if you take the time to hear both sides, learn the facts of the situation, and trace the process from beginning to end, you may find that there’s actually an instrument shortage, the OR staff change shifts at the exact time they are supposed to return the instruments to the SPD—or another part of the system isn’t set up to operate efficiently.

If you see conflict as inherently harmful, you wouldn’t identify any of these problems because rather than addressing complaints head-on, you’d avoid them altogether.

What Is Conflict Management?

Conflict management is a skill of approaching clashes between people, groups, or priorities, in a way that seeks the most optimal outcomes. Sometimes, this means resolving the conflict (i.e., bringing it to a peaceful end); other times, it means recognizing that the particular conflict won’t go away but there are ways to work around or through it.

There are five typical approaches to conflict management—and all of them have an appropriate time and place:

Competing: Also referred to as “forcing,” this is the “my way or the highway” approach that calls everyone to jump onboard with the proclaimed solution. This approach should be used sparingly, if possible, and mainly in situations that require quick action or involve issues of legal compliance or safety. This is where the manager puts his foot down and calls the shots.

Accommodating: Think of this as making room for others. This approach to managing conflict is appropriate for differences of approach or opinion that do not jeopardize departmental compliance or the safety of patients or staff.

Avoiding: Not everything is worth a confrontation, so choose your battles wisely. Avoiding is appropriate for small annoyances that come up between clashing personalities; they don’t necessarily impact the quality of the work, so let them be.

Compromising: When both parties have competing priorities—some of which are necessary and some of which are unnecessary—it’s time to find a way to meet in the middle. For example, if the OR and SPD from our example earlier have found an issue in OR staff scheduling and SPD staff breaks, a compromise might have the managers shifting OR staff schedules and establishing tighter rules around when SPD staff can take their breaks. Each department will have to give something up in order to get what they need to achieve their goals.

Collaborating: When all parties’ needs are equally important, collaboration is the appropriate way to manage the conflict. Bring every vested department into the discussion to share ideas and concerns, and work toward a solution that serves everyone.

Why Conflict Management Matters

Good conflict management takes the time to get to the root cause of conflict. If the reason staffers aren’t getting along is because it’s unclear who has jurisdiction over what, the solution can be as simple as defining responsibilities. If departments are butting heads because their goals don’t line up, it might be time to take the problem to upper management.

According to a research article in Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, these are the common causes of conflict:

Lack of clear expectations

Poor communication

Lack of clear jurisdiction

Personality differences

Conflicts of interest

Changes within the organization

Identifying the root cause enables staff to understand and depersonalize conflicts. SPD staff can step back from the ongoing conflict with the OR and see a simple process problem, as opposed to absent-mindedness or a lack of work ethic.

Without good conflict management, conflict can cause (or exacerbate) team dysfunction, decrease patient satisfaction, or increase employee turnover. Good conflict can do the opposite: “training in conflict resolution skills can result in improved teamwork, productivity, and patient and employee satisfaction,” while decreasing stress, improving processes, and multiplying cross-departmental understanding and collaboration.

If a conflict is seen as an opportunity for improvement—and not a soul-sucking inevitability that only impedes the work of your department—managing conflict and its outcomes become an exciting part of each day’s work.


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