Teach team members to referee themselves
TALK TEAM MEMBERS UP
For starters, make sure that each team member knows how much you value him or her as well as other team members. Compliment them on their individual talents. For example, you could say, "Wow, you and Erika are awesome at holding birds for avian exams. I never worry about being bitten when I'm working with one of you!" Go ahead and talk about them behind their backs, too. You could call it reverse gossip. Say things like, "Can you believe how proficient Jeni is at dental procedures? I feel like I have the assistance of three pet nurses when we work together."ENCOURAGE ONE-ON-ONES
If you let even one of your own personal frustrations with a coworker escape your lips, you open the door for coworkers to turn to you for commiseration when they're frustrated. If you experience conflict with a team member, talk with this person privately and respectfully about whatever needs to be resolved, and don't involve the rest of the team.
When you consistently build up your team members with positive feedback—both to their face and "behind their back"—and handle personal conflicts privately and respectfully, you build the groundwork for a positive upward spiral. If team members know you respect everyone, including the person they might not get along with, this produces a twofold effect. First, it colors the lens through which they see the conflict. "Wow, Maynard sure is being difficult, but Doc has a lot of good things to say about him. Maybe I'm not interpreting the situation accurately." And second, they know they'll be alone in badmouthing the person they're grouchy about.
Implementing these techniques will separate the wheat of important complaints from the chaff of petty conflicts. You'll be faced with far fewer trivial issues and be able to focus on the situations that truly require intervention—for example: "Doc, I know you really respect Rhonda and she does a wonderful job. But as team leader, I thought you should know that she just punched Troy for distracting her, and he's unconscious. Will you help us resolve this situation?"
As team members practice resolving conflicts with each other, they'll become proficient at it. Their first reaction will no longer be to run to you, because working through things together will have become a habit. They'll learn from your example that gossip is damaging, complimenting others builds up the whole team, conflicts should be resolved confidentially, and you're a strong leader who can be trusted to step in when needed.
Dr. Shawn Finch works at Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion, Neb. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org