Workplace Conflict: Acknowledging Conflict Styles within the Dental Office Workplace

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Ugh, it’s Monday. While you are usually a very happy and upbeat morning person who can be a tad bit annoying to the masses of dental patients who still need toothpicks to keep their eyes open over their 7 a.m. coffee, you are feeling unusually discontented. It started a few months ago when you found yourself the focus of a gossip group in the dental office and realized you were going down a rabbit hole that was becoming deeper and deeper.

You became anxious about going to work and no longer your bubbly self. How did this even happen? How did you not see it coming? Something has to give because this is not like you at all. You don’t want to change who you are. You want … no… you need your old self back!

Are you a dental hygienist who is feeling conflicted about work? Not sure what to do about it and need direction and validation for your feelings? This is the second article in a series dedicated to the topic of workplace conflict and will address primarily the theme of “conflict styles,” as well as how we each possess one or more characteristics that dictate our approach to conflict. You may wish to read part one here first to acquaint yourself with the topic at hand.

While it stands to reason that our individual and unique personality types help us to challenge one another in very positive ways, the other side of the coin is that balance doesn’t always occur as a result. Total clashes of the minds can and will happen. The trick to mastering this rollercoaster of nuances that can either become glorifying or outright disastrous is to learn how to be a quick study of another’s personality type and speak that person’s language.

Did you know, however, that we don’t just have personality types? We also have “conflict styles.” This was very new to me as well when I was researching for this series. I found it very fascinating and exceptionally helpful information. My goal is to share this with you so that we can have a deeper consideration of how each dental team member ticks (and what makes us “not” tick). Investing the time into really understanding one another will lend itself to a happier dental workplace where everyone feels appreciated, cared for, and respected.

Conflict Mode Instrument

To really study our own conflict mode and how we handle stressful situations, there is an excellent tool developed by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann called TKI (Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument). This multiple-choice tool of 30 questions asks the test-taker to choose the most likely response of two possible choices in scenarios that you may encounter on a daily basis.

I was exceptionally surprised at the outcome of this test when I took it myself. I thought most definitely that I would fall into a different category than I did. I learned how each of the five different conflict modes can be used wisely to maximize needed results at a given time and, conversely, when to lean on different approaches for the situation. I would encourage all dental hygienists to take this test on their own time or perhaps even as a team, learning more about yourself and one another. As an individual learning tool or as a team-building exercise, it truly will open your eyes to how you handle conflict.

The Five Conflict-Handling Modes

The TKI assessment describes a person’s behavior along the two basic dimensions of either assertiveness or cooperativeness. An assertive person will attempt to satisfy his or her own concerns. A cooperative person’s desire is to fulfill another person’s concerns. The level at which each of these two dimensions falls will open up the conversation revolving around the five conflict-handling modes.

A summary of the five styles is below.

1) Competing (“Might makes right”)

Often misunderstood, competing is a power-oriented mode that can be used to either pursue one’s own concerns at another’s expense or directly defend a position that is believed to be correct. It could also be simply trying to win in a less uncooperative way while still being assertive.

Uses:

a) When quick decisions are vital to the dental office, such as in the case of an emergency. For example, a patient is in medical distress and needs immediate attention. Not everyone is emotionally equipped to act quickly. The person who has a competing conflict style is more apt to address the situation and take charge, knowing what needs to be done.

b) To protect oneself from others who may take advantage of you or others. For example, you have noticed that the new hygienist is being bullied by one of the other hygienists and being taken advantage of. She is new to the practice and, as a recent graduate, she doesn’t realize what is going on.

The hygienist who is bullying her has the new girl doing her grunt work, sharpening and sterilizing her instruments for her. This may be a good time for the hygienist with the competing conflict style to take charge of the situation respectfully, perhaps speaking with the bully and suggesting that she start acting fairly and more welcoming to the new recruit or speaking to management be the next step.

Caveat: Others can become afraid of upsetting you and, therefore, never address their true concerns or ideas for positive change.

2) Collaborating (“Two heads are better than one”)

The ultimate goal for all parties involved is for a win-win resolution to any conflict. When collaborating, each individual attempts to work with the other to satisfy all concerns. This is the mode where finding creative solutions by exploring all insights from all parties involved takes place. This is not to be mistaken with compromising, which is discussed next.

Uses:

a) When finding an integrative solution where all concerns are addressed (needs to take place without compromise).

For example, one team member has asthma and is very sensitive to a certain cleaning solution that another member uses to clean her floors. The member who uses the cleaner only wants to use this cleaner as she has done the research and finds this one the most effective. A collaborative solution may be that the cleaner can be used on the staggered times the other team member is not at the office.

b) Implementing commitment from all parties by incorporating everyone’s concerns. This creates a feeling of value for all parties.

For example, a team meeting (perhaps just the hygienists, if the concerns revolve around the hygiene department) allows everyone the opportunity to express how they want to see certain things implemented. Issues could be the number of instruments each hygienist is allowed to order per year, how much time per service is needed to be effective, if Fridays should be casual dress day and how that will look, etc. Once all matters are freely discussed, and agreements are in place, each member signs the meeting notes.

c) Working through difficult feelings that interfere with the relationship.

For example, one team member is having a very emotional time due to a recent death in her family. She is taking it out on everyone and is not handling herself professionally. Would this be a good time for someone to give her a hug, let her know she is not alone, and suggest she take a little time off to regroup before returning to work?

She already knows her behavior is unacceptable, but this offer of understanding might be what it takes for her to know that it won’t be tolerated, even though it’s understood. She will get the time off she no doubt knows she needs but was too afraid to ask for.

Caveat: This can be time-consuming, so be selective when to use this tool.

3) Compromising (“Split the difference”)

Finding a mutually acceptable solution that only partially satisfies both parties is where a compromise comes in. Sometimes this is necessary for seeking a quick middle-ground position. There is a time and place for this, so that needs to be evaluated at the time of the disagreement.

Uses:

a) When time is of the essence, and a temporary settlement needs to take place for a complex issue.

For example, during the pandemic, much concern was given to how many people should be allowed in the reception area. Should kids be accompanied by their parents? If so, until what age? Is that parent to be medically screened as well?

While some of these questions had clear-cut answers for a time, many compromises needed to be made as time went on, and team members had difficulty implementing all of the rules. At the beginning of the pandemic, I, like others, was exceptionally anxious and became bitter about rules being broken. I didn’t compromise enough in areas that I could have but stood my ground when I knew I should.

If a person was in reception without an appointment, I would question the front desk (quietly, of course) and ask why they were there. If the answer indicated that the waiting room visitor was waiting for another appointment for a significant other or child to end, I would get upset and remind the front desk that they can only be there with a scheduled appointment.

What I needed to do, however, was hear the reason why they were waiting and then decide if the argument was worth it or not. Maybe the significant other was medically compromised and needed to have their spouse nearby just in case. Maybe the front desk simply made a mistake in judgment, but it was a little late to ask the person to leave after suggesting they could stay. The compromise might be to ask the person waiting to fill out the screening forms and have their temperature taken, etc. so that they can continue to wait.

b) As a backup mode when other modes fail.

For example, in the event of a parent coming to the hygiene appointment with their children (who are not allowed in the operatory), you find out they couldn’t get a babysitter and had no choice. Choosing to reschedule them for a time when they are able to get daycare provided would be a great approach. Rules are kept, children are safe, and an appointment was made for a later date.

Caveat: Costly, if principles, values, and long-term objectives are at stake. Can undermine trust and merit for situations that are deserving of such.

4) Avoiding (“Leave well enough alone”)

Not addressing conflict can have its challenges and consequences as well as rewards. To not engage in threatening situations oftentimes is the best method for survival. Side-stepping or postponing issues are relative to the situation at hand.

Uses:

a) When the potential costs of confronting a conflict outweigh the benefits of its resolution.

b) When an issue is unimportant or other issues are more pressing. For example, does it really matter if Terry always hums the same tune all day and it annoys you? How about when Carrie always moves your lunch bag over in the fridge, crushing it against the water jug? Or, when Candace sweeps everyone’s room but yours? In the grand scheme of things, these are more annoying than important and may not be worth the argument.

c) To give time for others to cool down.

Caveat: Can create dysfunction if energy is not focused on making decisions when important and other members can suffer without your input. Take gossip, for instance. In the beginning, we discussed how being the focus of a gossip group can be debilitating to the point of mental and physical breakdown.

What if you are a daily witness to this oppressive behavior and do nothing to assist the victim? You might as well be one of the perpetrators in this situation because your avoidance is doing harm to that poor girl being victimized. This is not the time for avoidance and should be addressed.

5) Accommodating (“Kill your enemies with kindness”)

In the opposite mode of competing, this person neglects his or her own concerns to satisfy others. While there is a selfless and generous side to this mode that can be appreciated, the reverse can also be true in that this person is always yielding and risks never being respected or understood.

Uses:

a) When preserving harmony and avoiding disruption are paramount.

b) When you know you are wrong.

c) When you are a leader and want your dependents to learn from a challenge or mistake.

Caveat: Deferring too much can deprive you of trust, respect, and influence, as well as disinherit you from the rewards of potential contributions.

In Closing

While these five conflict styles that we each possess to varying degrees contribute significantly to how we each handle disharmony in the dental workplace, we need to also remember that people do things for a reason. Our unique life experiences lead us to where we are today. Might I suggest we try to get to know the “why” of what our team members do what they do before judging and contributing to workplace conflict? You may learn something new and exciting about another and become much more understanding ─ dare I say, maybe even friends?

We will wrap up the conflict series with the next chapter, which will cover the five-step plan for difficult conversations. It will give us direction on how we can initiate a resolution for a potentially escalated workplace conflict.

Examples will be provided with mock scenarios that I am sure we can all relate to in one form or another. I trust that this will open our hearts and minds more to one another so that we can have a peaceful workplace that we look forward to instead of dreading day after day, week after week. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Like the well-known poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Until the next in this Workplace Conflict series, my colleagues, my friends. Hugs to you all.

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Reference

  1. Thomas, K.W., Kilmann, R.H. (n.d.). Take the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). Kilmann Diagnostics. Retrieved from https://kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki/
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Corina Hartley, RDH, is a Canadian, Registered Dental Hygienist who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, which lies beside the North Saskatchewan River, the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America. She is supported and loved by her husband, four children, three grandchildren, and two fur babies. Graduating from Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, in 2006, she has experienced the challenges of commuting to big cities, working in more remote areas, and also temping at various offices with differing ethnic backgrounds. While her family will always be her first love, the dental world is certainly the field she is passionate about, and writing about it brings her immense joy. Corina has a unique ability to relax the most phobic patient and calm an irate one with a smile, understanding attitude, and a special sense of humour. She enjoys really getting to the heart of the matter with everything she does in life, and this is demonstrated with her witty writing abilities as well. Corina’s biggest desire is to share life with as many people as possible through close-up experiences, story-telling, and simply just being present.