Episode 58

Fighting the Good Fight: Resolving Conflict & Reducing Stress at Work

War and Peace in the Workplace Series See All Episodes »

Stress and conflict are inevitable, but they’re not inherently bad. Sometimes, they can help you identify inefficiencies in a particular process and force you to find better approaches. Other times, they might encourage you to grow as a person or gain new skills that help you tackle a problem. Whether you flounder or flourish in the face of stress is largely up to you.

In this episode, our human resources guru, Maura Stevenson, is back with tips for how you can become more adept at identifying stress and conflict at work and, more importantly, resolving it. She explains what the practice owner or manager’s role should be in reducing stress in the workplace, as well as to what extent they should be involved in handling conflicts among colleagues. We also discuss practical ideas (such as visual planning and batching) for managing the stressors of everyday life—big and small, at work and at home. Finally, she offers sage advice on how to let go of the things that are too much for you to handle, and how to make peace with it.

Episode Guest


Maura Stevenson

M.A., Ph.D.

Maura is the chief human resources officer at MedVet in Worthington, Ohio. Her job includes overseeing talent management, compensation and benefits, leadership and employee development, and organizational development.
Learn More »

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Episode Transcript

Mia Cunningham: As leaders in the organizations who are supposed to be the model for what they want to see in cultivating a certain type of culture in their practice, what kind of things do they need to be thinking about as they’re identifying how they want people to manage conflict within their practice? Is there, I don’t know, even a hierarchy of how they can go about problem solving for themselves? What do leaders need to think about to display the model for conflict resolution within their practice or hospital? 

MS: So I think sometimes what might hold us back as leaders is we don’t want to deal with the issue and we lose sight that we’re not then leading in the way we need to for the rest of the caregivers. And we kind of let it go for a little bit, because we think no one knows. Everybody knows. And when you finally address that situation, what do people say to you? “It’s about time.” If I let something fester and keep going, it’s going to have a negative impact on our practice’s culture. 

Think about how you are in a triage situation. Everybody knows their duties. Experienced people, they just manage it. So I think some of it for some of us is role modeling of, when something comes up, is it a big deal or is it not a big deal? And how do we navigate through that? Set that thoughtful conflict approach for our team.  

And also, address conflict. First, you start with understand the facts of the situation. Because often people will come to you and want you to fix it for them. And there’s just a lot of emotion. You can say, “Hey, I just want you to back up and walk me through what happened.” (Then they might say:) “Well, do you know what Dr. Stevenson did? She did this and that.” (Then you can say:) “You know what? I’d love to get curious about that. Let me go have a conversation with her.” Get the multiple sides, and then be very focused on the facts, and not let a bias show. 

Another thing leaders can do is not demonstrate drama themselves. Not engage in talking about people, but talking with people. And there are times when you, as a people leader, you talk about how to coach and you provide guidance and you’re talking about people in a constructive way. But in general, I want those people to be in the conversation. So I think some of it is don’t be dramatic. That’s not going to help anybody. And when you’re feeling dramatic, take a breath. 

And so, again, it’s never fun. But conflicts are often problems to solve. I think solving problems is fun, because you’re making progress. You’re making the practice better, and maybe you’re improving patient care. We can get better with conflict. It’s just hard because it involves humans, and humans are much harder than pets. 

MC: Let’s say I don’t manage conflict well, and I know that that’s not my strong suit. Would it benefit a practice to have someone on board in a human resource vein or something else that just has some sort of practicum that they follow when it comes to conflict, so that if there’s an associate or a support staff that has issue with another staffer, they can go to this person and just kind of ask for help to work through whatever the conflict is? 

MS: So, I have a couple of thoughts. One is that my preference is that we build the capability in our caregivers, particularly those who are people leaders, so that they can address the conflict themselves in the moment. Where you might need an HR partner or you need to go to your next level leader, is when the conflict becomes ingrained, when it’s really difficult. But our job should be to coach or bring the parties together, more times than it should be to intervene. 

Really, what I would like is for conflict to become just something that’s part of life, right? We often say conflict, and we kind of get our hackles up, because conflict feels bad and it’s scary. I would posit that both conflict and stress are neutral. It’s how we deal with them that can create the value-laden component. 

Conflict can be very, very productive, right? I might have someone who says, “I don’t like the way we’re doing this.” And instead of saying, “Well, it’s not your decision; the practice owner made that decision.” What I should do is get curious and say, “Well, why? Where have you seen it done better?” Because our team members and caregivers who are working on the floor, they’re the ones who see what’s going on. 

I also think it’s important to kind of know what your default approach is to stress and conflict. So if you’re someone who, you just want to let it lie and hope it goes away, that might tell you what skills you need to work on. There are times, though, when I’m not going to deal with every conflict that comes up, every moment of the day. Sometimes I might wait for a few more cards to hit the table and see what happens. But when a team member brings you something and they’re saying, “Well, you know, Maura did this, and she did that!” Your first question should be, “Well, have you talked to Maura?” Inevitably they’ll say no. And then you say, “I’d love for you to be able to have that conversation. Do you want us to kind of think through how that conversation could go? Because I think it would be best if you deliver that feedback directly. You want to tell her if this is going on; it’s something she needs to know. If I was doing something that was unsafe for patient care, you would tell me right away. So if I’m doing something that creates an unhealthy work environment, you should probably tell me, because chances are I don’t even know.” Some of it is having those conversations with your caregivers and saying, “Hey, how’s it going really?” 

And you have to have that relationship to be able to have (conversations like that), because it can be helpful to have a sounding board, to have someone to help in escalated situations. But (at MedVet) we have one HR partner covering between three and six hospitals, so they’re not there every day, they’re not there for everyone. So, my hope would be we get to the point where HR is not even needed. Right? That’s what I would love. I would love to have our people leaders become so great at managing their teams that their need for us goes away. I don’t see that happening because the fundamentals of human behavior. I do have a Ph.D. in psychology, so I’m realistic as well. But I think the better we get at dealing with stress and conflict, it may be one of those things—like when a family makes a compassionate decision to euthanize a pet. It never gets easy, but you get better at it. 

I think for some of us, we need to think about stress and conflict in that framework. What you don’t want is to outsource your conflict management. You want to figure out what’s your way of dealing with conflict. How can you tee up those crucial conversations in a way that can be productive and help the caregivers manage through it? I just came back from a leadership session for our clinical managers, and some of them kept saying, “You know, I’m just exhausted from all the crucial conversations I’ve had to have lately.” So it can be tiring. But I would argue, as people leaders, that is the most important part of our job. But we don’t want to solve it for people.

Krysten Bennett: Similarly, you can’t expect someone else to completely take away your stress, either, but what are some ways that practice leaders can help make their employees’ lives easier at work, thereby reducing some of their stress? 

MS: If we think about the things that really impact particularly our doctors, first, it’s medical records. So, can you get more efficient about medical records? Can you add a scribe? And then, it’s making sure that they have techs, vet assistants, and tech assistants who are skilled. And then, making sure that all of our team members can take time off.

But you know what, I have what people might consider an extraordinarily stressful job. And I love it. And the work that all of our veterinary professionals do, it’s phenomenal. I’m so proud to be able to serve these folks. But I get a lot of yucky problems.  And some of it is like, well, okay, I dealt with the last thing, and I’ll deal with this one too. 

KB: I think a lot of veterinary professionals probably feel that way — that their job is very stressful, but hopefully at the end of the day, they still love it. But for those days that are overwhelming, we might need some help to get our perspective back. And so, in our last conversation, you introduced us to how we can use simple physical and mental recovery routines to manage stress. As we begin to put these systems in place to help us manage our stress, it may feel like we’re doing a lot all at once—so that we’re getting overwhelmed with fixing the problems that we were overwhelmed with from the start. What can we do to set ourselves up for success and avoid that secondary overwhelm? 

Maura Stevenson: Well, I think you have the short-term things and you have the long-term things. And in a profession full of overachievers, I think people want to do everything at once. But pick one new habit. Pick one new habit—that might be I’m going to drink more water, or I’m going to limit caffeine after 2:00 p.m. My husband has just decided he’s only going to drink soda and alcohol on the weekends. So what is your one adjustment? And then you can add another adjustment later. 

I don’t think you have to take care of yourself by shutting everything else down in your life. But when you’re stressed, having those little recovery routines is really important.

KB: So you talked a lot about physical and mental things that you can do, but in terms of practical solutions, can you talk a little bit about how you can reduce or prevent stress from happening through strategies like planning and prioritization and that sort of thing? 

MS: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, you’ll often hear the phrase, particularly if you work in corporate America, where they say, “We’re going to do more with less.” No, you should never do more with less. You should do fewer things differently. 

There is some triaging of your own work, just like you would triage if you suddenly had ten patients come into your waiting room. Some of that is figuring out, what are you going to do now? What are you going to do later? And what are you not going to do?

So let’s think about that a little bit. In veterinary medicine, we have a lot of Gen Z and Millennial women. Young women tend to be very hard on themselves. They also, in many circumstances, should they have a family, will pick up a lot of caregiving duties. And so, as I’ve talked with and worked with young female professionals in particular, there’s this expectation that they should be able to do it all. 

Sometimes you get really overwhelmed by just how much stuff you feel like you have. I think it’s good to put that list down and think about what’s urgent and important, and what’s urgent but not important. And then what are those things that you just need to get done and move on? So there is some triaging of your own work, just like you would triage if you suddenly had ten patients come into your waiting room. Some of that is figuring out, what are you going to do now? What are you going to do later? And what are you not going to do? I know that sounds really wild, doesn’t it? Really radical. I think there’s (also) the piece of how you feel inside about what you’re doing and not doing. First, you have to know what’s on your plate, then you have to prioritize what’s on your plate, and then you have to hold yourself accountable. 

But I do think there are those times when we all just have too much. So, what can you do to get the most out of the time you have? Planning is really important. I typically recommend looking out about a week. What do I have on my work schedule, and what do I have on my personal schedule? And if you’re in a practice manager or more administrative role where you actually use your scheduling tool on Google or Outlook or whatever you use. We’ve got a family Google calendar. I’ve got my work calendar. My daughter has her own calendar. And if it’s not on the family Google calendar, it’s not happening. It’s super un-glamorous, but that calendar management and knowing what’s coming up helps you get out ahead of things the way you need to. Because you’re always going to have something unexpected, right? The dog’s going to eat something horrible, and you’re going to have to take your own pet in for care. Or your car is going to break down. Let those things happen, but everyday life, try to make it as even-keeled as possible.

You can also batch, or kind of chunk your work together. So let’s say I do inventory and that I have to order. I do inventory one day and I usually try to do my ordering the next day, but sometimes I’ve forgotten stuff or things have changed, so I wind up redoing things. Figure out how to batch your work together so it’s more efficient. What are things that you do repetitively? Maybe you can do all of those at a particular time. 

We find a lot of our people, particularly in leadership roles, they’re letting their email manage them. Email is asynchronous communication. Check email once or twice a day. The other thing is you should turn off all your alerts. No alerts. None. I only get texts. I’ve turned off alerts for everything else because all you’re getting is that Pavlovian response, and you’re dinging with the bell. And it’s funny, because when we talk about that, particularly with our leaders in our hospitals, they think I’m crazy. And then they do it, and it transforms their life. If you have all your social media alerts on, you need to go in and turn them off. That is the most practical, important thing you can do. Yes, there needs to be an emergency way for people to reach you. There should be one path for that, and it should be used sparingly. 

And then sometimes with those really big projects, you can “next step” it. Often we get overwhelmed because we’re facing something that’s big. You say, “Well, what do I need to do first?” And do that. Then say, “What do I need to do next?” And do that. And then question yourself: “Is this something I really need to be doing?” Both with work and at home. 

Doing some of those smaller things where you may not be able to reduce the volume, but you can manage it more efficiently and you can reduce how that volume makes you feel, which will make your perceived stress lower, which then will make your actual stress lower. 

So figure out what works for you. If the idea of a color-coded family Google Calendar terrifies you, don’t do that. And then figuring out where you can let go and why. Where are those standards coming from? It’s okay to eat leftovers or make simple meals. 

So that’s some tips, But I think for some of us, it could just be too much work, in which case inventory it and have the conversation: “Hey, this isn’t something I can do in a day.” Really making sure we’re questioning that everyday work and that we’re looking at it with a process improvement mindset. 

Another thing you can do is visual management. So, think about your boards, right? Most of our practices probably have boards with patients and what they’re in for. That’s a great example of visual management. You can do that for other things as well. You can use colored Post-It notes. I might have things I’m focusing on for recruiting, and I put all the tasks (on one color), and I may have things I’m focusing on for inventory, and I put those tasks (on another color). 

Often what can stress us out is not knowing what we have to do, and it just feels overwhelming. We’ve all been there. So you take a breath, you work through it, and you figure out what your systems are. There are smarter and better ways that you can do things and be more efficient, but it just depends: What’s going to help you get the time for the things that matter most? 

KB: Do you have any suggestions specifically for the people who want to do all the things, and they want to do them as close to perfect as possible? As a high achiever myself, I know a lot of the pressure and stress I feel comes from my own internal expectations, rather than other people or external situations, which in some ways I think can be more difficult to manage. 

MS: You know, that’s the other piece. We all have high standards for ourselves, and sometimes we didn’t give ourselves those standards. They came from how we were raised, or the standards within our community of what we should do and shouldn’t do. That’s hard to move past—if there is something (like that), but you want to make change. 

For most of us, there are some small changes that can help get us on the right path. For me, the pandemic has not been good for my exercise routines. So I’m rejoining my gym next week and I’m going to have some reasonable goals on what I’m going to do to get back into it—because I know how important exercise is. It makes me feel better. It’s better for my long-term health. It’s good for stress relief. I know all those things cognitively, but getting to the behavior change can be hard. So, start with something, and then you can add another adjustment. 

You don’t have to be perfect at all those things. You just set expectations and make peace with that. Because we want to feel successful in our work, and we want to feel successful in our lives. And when we are experiencing that overwhelm, we feel successful in neither.

KB: Maura, thank you again for being with us today. Before we let you go, is there anything else you want to mention to our listeners?

MS: Here’s what I would say. When you fly in an airplane, what do they say about the oxygen masks? You’re supposed to put on yours first before you help someone. Why? Well, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be good to anyone else.

KB: Great reminder. And thank you again for joining us on the show.