Working and personal relationships

As we mentioned previously, working in a team – big or small – can be challenging. All team members, regardless of rank or seniority, need to accept responsibility for playing their part in ensuring the team works well and that relationships between team members are positive. This means:

  • respecting your own contribution and that of others [see: Valuing your role and others]
  • being courteous, respectful and polite to colleagues
  • taking time to get to know your colleagues
  • addressing them in the way they prefer
  • being prepared to challenge them when disagreements arise, setting out your own views clearly and respecting those of others, even when they do not chime with yours.

However, it isn’t unusual to have problems or concerns at some time about a member of your team. A colleague may seem to take a different view to you about what constitutes ‘patients’/clients’ best interests’. You may find his or her manner, behaviour or even sense of humour unpleasant. Or you may have had a friendly relationship with the person outside of work that has turned sour for some reason.

These kinds of situations are not uncommon and are, in some sense, almost inevitable when a group of people who may have very different backgrounds and views spend long periods of time together, sometimes in very stressful environments.

Inevitable they may be, but that does not mean they should be regarded as acceptable.

The danger is that problems with working and personal relationships within the team can, if not recognised and addressed, lead to unpleasant outcomes – accusations of bullying or harassment, for instance. Even worse, they can have a bad impact on patient/client care and the ability of the team to meet their needs.

The central message when dealing with this problem is the same as it is for all the other issues we discuss in this programme – we need to put the patient’s/client’s interests first.

A certain amount of creative tension in the team can be positive – there is much to be gained, for instance, in being challenged to think in a new way, or to receive constructive criticism from a colleague on your performance. But when animosity and resentment feature in the team, there is a real danger of conflict arising, with the emotions created spilling over into  unprofessional practice.

So, what to do? Perhaps the most important issue is to recognise when a potential problem is developing between you and another team member and honestly and openly address it.  Do you remember our discussion of how to respond to patient/client or family member complaints and we introduced the acronym CALM as a pointer on how to conduct yourself? Here we have a slightly different CALM acronym to direct how you might want to address a problem issue with a colleague:

  • Consider the other person’s feelings and viewpoints – he or she may not even be aware there is a problem and may react negatively if feeling threatened or accused in any way
  • Allow the person to respond to your concerns – really listen, quietly, and try to build up a picture from his or her point of view
  • Look for ways to resolve the potential conflict – what can you do differently that will help to improve the relationship?
  • Move on – try to come to some agreement with the person about changing the nature of your relationship, in patients’/clients’ best interests.

This can be difficult enough, but if the colleague you are experiencing difficulties with is more senior than you (perhaps even your manager or supervisor), it can be even harder. It is therefore very important for you to understand who you can go to if you have a problem at work, and be confident that your concerns will be taken seriously. Your RCN representative will be able to support you – there will always be someone there to advise.

We should remember that while occasionally ‘falling out’ with a colleague can happen, genuine conflict is comparatively rare. But when it does occur, it can seriously affect not only the performance, but also the health and sense of well-being, of the people involved. We need to make sure, then, that potential conflicts are not ‘brushed under the carpet’: we should address the problems openly, honestly and calmly and, if things are not improving, we need to know where to go to get further support and, hopefully, resolution.

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