LeadershipOffice Culture

What To Do When Team Members Don’t Get Along

what to do when team members dont get along

You know that feeling that creeps in when you see two of your employees about to bite each other’s heads off? You might be inclined to shrink back into the shadows or disappear to your personal office. Or you might be the person who has the tendency to explode and it’s likely that you’ll inevitably join the shouting match. Either way, these sorts of situations are causing harm to your business.

And it would be pretty amazing if we could just snap our fingers and make everything right, without having to do a thing, but that’s not the case is it?

As the owner of the business it’s your responsibility to protect the culture of your office. It’s your responsibility to make sure that your employees are “safe” and that they can trust you to do the right thing.

I probably don’t need to go into all the details about how allowing poor behavior makes for a bad work environment & patient experience. Complacency on your part can do a real number on your business’s profitability.

So let’s start by addressing the real issue upfront: confrontation is hard.

You might struggle with taking a stance because deep down you really care about each person and you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or if you’re on the opposite side of that spectrum, you might struggle with taking a stance because you’re afraid that you’re going to explode and there might be some undesirable consequences. Whatever your reason, the truth is we’re all afraid of what could happen. So it’s hard. It truly is.

You’re not alone in feeling that way.

But I want to pose an important question to you: What’s the cost of avoiding taking action? What are you willing to loose or sacrifice just to avoid that temporary discomfort?

The cost is huge, right?

Avoidance will cost you in team morale, you’ll loose A-Players, and probably patients too (because yes, they can feel when there is tension). Patient referrals will decrease (who would share a place with their friends that constantly has screaming matches between the employees?), and you’ll notice that “rot” in the office is etching away at many other aspects of your business.

So it goes without saying that complacency as a leader is a dangerous thing.

The goal is not to have everyone agree 100% of the time, but the goal is to have everyone be respectful & kind 100% of the time.

So let’s be brave enough to be the leader that our teams & patients deserve.

Working Towards A Common Purpose Creates Unity

Back in the 1950’s there were a couple social psychologists who wondered what is was about groups that makes for such tension to exist and what can be done about it.

They created the Robber’s Cave experiment. What it was, was a fake three week summer camp with two groups of eleven to twelve year old boys who had common backgrounds. Each group did not know about the other.

In the first stage of the experiment they had the boys within each group get together and find commonality. They saw friendships and bonds form.

In the second stage they brought the two groups of boys together and created rigged competitions where there was only one clear winner. The winning group would be given awards and rewards while the losing group received nothing.

The researchers found that the boys would not sit together in the lunch hall, there was name calling and eventually it started to escalate to vandalism and violence between the two groups.

In the last stage the experimenters set up scenarios in which the boys had to work together towards a common goal. In one of those scenarios, the boys were told that the truck that had their dinner was stuck in the ravine. If they wanted to eat, then they would need to get the truck out of the ditch.

In another scenario, the boys were told that the camp didn’t have enough money for the boys to go to the movies. The group who had been receiving rewards put all their money in so that every boy at camp could go.

It was activities like these where they put their heads together and joined together to make sure that the desired outcomes were achieved.

In this third stage, they saw that group lines had been dissipated and there was collaboration for all boys at the camp.

They would sit together, chip in for each other, and wanted to be around each other.

So what can we learn from the Robber’s Cave experiment? We see that groups who are working towards a common goal or purpose creates unity. Even when there previously was none.

And this is what needs to be done in our dental offices: the team needs to know and understand what they are working towards—together.

Drive Vision and Purpose

Your people are all on the same team, right? All working towards a common goal, correct?

While that concept might be clear to you, it might not be clear to your team. They might not see how they’re contributing to a bigger picture. It’s time to step up your leadership and coach your people.

The goals that you guys have can only be achieved through team work. So does each person understand how their role contributes to the team and the overall vision of the practice?

As the practice owner, what impact do you want to have? Does the team know about that impact and how it applies to them?

Purpose is very much about the impact that the company has in the lives of others, and the team needs to understand what that impact is and the role that they play in it.

Here’s some ideas to bring the team together:

  • Read patient testimonials. Help the team see the difference that they’re making.
  • Do you guys give to charity? What makes that possible? Working together as a team.
  • Are there any big goals that you’re all working towards? Maybe building a new building so that you can serve more people in your community (to see more patients & supply more jobs).
  • Maybe you guys have big collection goals which means team bonuses, which mean Sally can pay off her car, Jane & her husband can finally take a trip, etc.

Find a way to get your people come together by working towards something as a team, while tying it in to their personal goals.

Make Your Expectations Crystal Clear

In addition to working towards a common purpose, you’ve got to be crystal clear on what you expect from your employees. You might think your expectations are common sense or obvious common courtesy, but the only way to be sure is to communicate what your expectations are.

As a leader, to be unclear is to be unkind.

So what are your expectations? They’re probably things along these lines:

  • I expect each person on this team to treat each other with respect. Which means no yelling, no name-calling, no gossiping (aka talking about people in a negative way to someone who can’t do anything about it).
  • I expect each person on this team to treat each other with kindness and understanding.
  • I expect each person to talk to each other and work out their disagreements or seek mediation when you need more help.
  • I expect you to look at yourself first (what you can do or change to make situations better), before you ask any of your team mates to make changes.

If you know what your expectations are and you can clearly articulate them then it’s time to call a team meeting.

It probably isn’t necessary to point out specific conflicts during the team meeting, but rather, to paint the picture for your team of how you expect them to treat each other in general, what benefits they can expect, and if there’s any clear-cut things that you will no longer tolerate (like yelling matches).

You can still present this in a positive way by saying something like this:

I dream of a place where we come to work and XYZ happens. We spend a lot of time here together. Maybe more time here than with our families. The only way we can succeed is by working as a team. The only way we can serve our patients is by working as a team. The only way we can *insert desired impact* is by working as a team. We must come together as a team. And we’ve got a team of smart adults here. Each of you I know are capable of respect, compassion, understanding, & kindness. I know you want to do the right thing. I know that each of you want to come to work and feel supported & cared for. The only way this works is if each of us becomes responsible for ourselves. So are you willing to do your part?… From here on out, just to be absolutely clear these are my expectations of each of you… Yelling matches will no longer be tolerated.

I promise you that that conversation might feel scary but it will be a lot easier than you think. And you’ll hear a sigh of relief from the rest of the team because I promise you that they’re all thinking, “It’s about time!”

One thing that I absolutely have to mention is: if you’re going to be asking your team to do something, you better be doing it yourself.

So for example, if you yell at people when you’re upset, then you can expect eye rolls from the team instead of that sigh of relief from them when you’re asking them not yell at each other.

And I know that this might be hard, but you must acknowledged your short comings with the team. Just get them out. Lay them on the table. Trust me, it’s not anything that they don’t already know. And by you acknowledging that, you will gain more respect from your team.

So when you give your “motivational” pep talk you’ll want to include something like, “I know that I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. I’m sorry, and you can expect a change in my behavior.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Having The Hard But Necessary Conversations

It’s the hard but necessary conversations that we tend to procrastinate, don’t we? But it’s probably time to meet with the individual team members who are involved in the trouble if this has been an on-going issue in your office.

Identify the Root Cause Not Symptoms

What is a root cause? It’s the underlying reason. There are root causes at the heart of all human disagreements. Think about it.

Have you ever been arguing with your spouse or significant other about something that might appear to be about one thing, when it’s really about something else?

Here’s an example that might sound familiar: you’ve just spent decent sum of money on something, but you didn’t consult your significant other about the purchase. You fight about the amount of money being spent, but the truth is, it isn’t really about the money.

One person feels like they can’t be trusted to make important decisions, while the other feels their need for security hasn’t been respected. The fight isn’t about money, it’s about two people’s basic needs for trust and respect not being met.

It’s only when a couple can see past the symptoms (e.g. being upset about the money), that the true conflict can be resolved. Otherwise, you’ll continue to see this fight resurface with different symptoms—meaning, they’ll fight about other things which infringes on their needs of trust and respect.

However, if the two people fighting about money can understand that one partner needs trust and the other needs respect then they’ll be able to treat each other more empathetically.

So this is what’s happening with the two team members who have quote quote “different personalities”.

It isn’t a difference in personalities that’s causing these issues, it’s that the root cause isn’t being addressed.

Sit down with each person to get down to the root cause.

Create Clarity Around Roles with Good Communication

Do scenarios like these ring any kind of bells:

  • Erica thinks Heidi is lazy because she comes in at 11, so Erica routinely takes a longer lunch, leaving Heidi to man the phones during the busiest time.
  • Ashley and Susan fight about who’s supposed to be turning rooms, which turn into yelling matches.
  • Crystal (the office manager) asks for something to get done but Jesse (the DA) tells the team to do something else.

The objective of teamwork is to be able to support each other and function as a unit in order to execute on a bigger goal.

The functionality of sport teams is an easy-to-understand analogy. Take soccer for example: there’s a goalie, defenders, mid fielders, and forwards. Each “department” plays a crucial role in keeping the ball out of the team’s net and into the opposing team’s (all working towards a common goal). If an opportunity presents itself, the mid fielder may take the forwards position to score the goal while the forward drops back into the mid field position.

The parallel to our dental businesses is: good teams know there is no such thing as “that’s not my job”. Rather, they drop back or pull forward to fill a need and support each other as a bigger commitment to the entire team.

So a big part of team work boils down to clarity around roles and communication.

If employees don’t have all the information then this typically results in miscommunications and ultimately stress.

When an employee feels stressed, over-worked, or overwhelmed, it’s natural to look  for outside sources to place blame or relieve that tension. “So and so is not pulling their weight”, “I’m the only one actually working”, “My job is more important.” “I’ve been here longer so I’m entitled to..”

If we take the scenarios from above here’s how they might play out:

  • Erica thinks Heidi is lazy because she comes in at 11 so Erica routinely takes a longer lunch, leaving Heidi to man the phones during the busiest time. But that’s the time you’ve asked Heidi to come in so that she can stay later to close the day. And either Erica doesn’t know this bit of information, or the root cause isn’t being identified. It’s a good idea to share this information, and make sure that Erica knows why it’s important that she’s on the morning shift, why it’s important that the phones aren’t left unanswered, & to see if there’s anything Heidi and Erica can do together to help each other both get a little bit more of what they need. It’s rarely an unsolvable problem like “it’s just our personalities”, but rather it’s resentment that’s turning into passive-agressive behavior because the person is unable to articulate their emotions around feeling like someone isn’t pulling their weight, etc.
  • Ashley and Susan fight about who’s supposed to be turning rooms. This might be a case of mix-matched priorities. Ashley’s priority is to serve the face to face patients; Susan priority is to work on collections. Its not that Ashley doesn’t deserve or need the help but rather Susan’s priority is to collect money. It’s helpful if both team members know that it’s mandatory that Susan call insurance companies, collect on AR, and only in a pinch (give examples of what a pinch looks like) should be assisting another department. If the pinch is happening frequently and she’s saying yes to cleaning rooms then the office isn’t collecting the money it needs to stay in business… understanding that different roles have different priorities will help. Work together to come up with a plan so that each team member gets the support that they need.
  • Crystal the office manager asks for something to get done but Jesse the DA tells the team to do something else. If a DA wants to run the show (and they aren’t just on a power trip), then they might want something like, ‘being able to contribute their ideas’. They need to be clear on the role that they play, which doesn’t include grabbing the reins after the course has been set. In fact, the action of them doing that is undermining the ability for Crystal to succeed in her role. It’s important to help them discover how they can get their good ideas out there without them bulldozing the rest of the team.

When people understand each other’s roles and are able to communicate with each other, (and you communicate expectations & priorities to them), then the team is able to function much better.

Imagine if you threw a soccer player on the field who had no idea what the other players were doing. They might get upset if the goalie never scored any goals. But since they know that it’s best if the goalie stays close to the net, everyone is fine.

It’s up to you (the leader of the business) to coach your team on communication and help each person on your team see the other people’s value.

Be Brave Enough to Make The Call When It’s Needed

A simple truth: You can’t do it all. The functionality of your dental office has to be a collaboration. It’s a all-hands-on-deck every person counts sort of deal.

You can only do so much to help resolve issues and help people to get along.

And frankly, sometimes you have to be honest when it’s time to let someone go. So many of us spend so much time pouring into the “problem-employees” when there are people on the team who would really benefit and appreciate you developing & coaching them.

Because I believe that you should value your people, and first blame the system before you blame the employee, I like to start by reviewing my intention before I meet with someone.

That way I can connect with them, “I’m here because I want this to be a great place to work for all those concerned. I want to see this person succeed and do well.” I always consider these five things before making any tough calls:

  1. Have I made sure that my expectations have been clearly communicated? Verbally and in writing.
  2. Have I made sure that the person knows what winning in their role looks like? Measurable results, as well as fitting into the culture of the office.
  3. Have I made sure that they have the tools, resources, and training to do their job properly? Identify and/or ask.
  4. Is there a gap between what I expect from them and what they’re actually capable of doing? Position their natural strengths so that they can do well.
  5. Do they have a willingness to accept responsibility for their own actions and a desire to improve themselves? Every coach needs a player. I do not babysit.

Once you’ve done what you can to ensure their success in the role, and if they still refuse to ‘play by the rules’ then it might be time to make a hard decision.

It’s emotionally hard to make that call when the person is thought to be well-liked, they’ve been there for a long-time, or they really produce financial results.

And I’ve already mentioned that you can’t do it all, but one thing that you must always do is protect the culture of your office.

You must take a stance against poor behavior and you cannot allow one person to infect the rest of the team with a bad attitude.

Those sort of employees are like adding a drop of poison to a pitcher of water; the whole thing becomes contaminated!

So don’t be afraid of having the hard but necessary conversations—whenever I have to do something that is hard this quote comes to mind and helps me, “Your ability to experience growth is directly related to your ability to tolerate uncomfortableness.”


If you’re the person who’s saying,”Office politics is our #1 problem. Too many different personalities all getting on each other’s nerves.”

Then I’d like to challenge you to step into your leadership shoes.

It’s time for you to create unity on your team by driving vision and purpose so that the team is crystal clear on why they are showing up to work for everyday.

It’s time for you to communicate your expectations of your team and of the individuals on your team.

And if there has been more than a one-off issue with specific team players, it’s time to sit down and communicate with them. Not only do they need to understand your expectations, they also need to understand the roles in the business, what the priorities of those roles are, and how their role contributes. Together root causes need to be identified & addressed.

Hard conversations are necessary, just as being uncomfortable as a leader is. Hopefully, you won’t have to free up a team member’s opportunity (aka let them go), but as the leader you have to be brave enough to make the call when it’s time.

Remember: complacency as a leader is a dangerous thing.

The goal is not to have everyone agree 100% of the time, but the goal is to have everyone be respectful & kind 100% of the time.

What do you do in your office when team members don’t get along?

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