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How Infighting Destroys An Organization

Every year, there is that story about the sports team that just couldn't get along. The team was fighting at practices, fighting in the media, and arguing over petty issues or who did who wrong. The team then started to lose games, and the coach came forward and said he just couldn't figure out what went wrong. He said it just wasn't their best game. Players left the team and went elsewhere. Sadly, the viewers knew the truth as they watched the dramatic irony unfold. Infighting was the underlying cause of the problem. It was at the core of all of the surrounding issues. 

Unfortunately, the above scenario plays out not only on the field or on the court, but also in classrooms, communities, families and healthcare organizations. Once a culture of infighting is fostered and allowed to develop, the organization is doomed for failure in one area or another. Infighting tears away at the very fibers of an organization until the nerves and goals of all of those involved are tattered and frayed.

Sadly, the infighting goes on and on and on -- sometimes for years. As time goes on, the conflict grows, and there is finger pointing, jilted egos and hurt feelings on both sides of the issue. It's an everyone is right, but no one is wrong situation. The remedy, of course, is to take measures to reduce infighting.

1. Bring everyone to the table. If leaders ignore infighting, it doesn't go away. It may seem better at times. What really is happening is that all the issues and reasons for being upset are pushed below the surface, where they simmer until they come to a rolling boil. Symptoms of infighting are closed doors, blocking others out, refusing to answer emails, phone calls or even showing up to meetings. In order to address infighting, leaders have to address the issue as soon as possible, and bring everyone to the table. All parties have to be heard - together.

2. Promote healthy competition. At times, infighting is caused by good old professional competition. It is a good idea to have a healthy competition between leaders, such as who will have the lowest turnover rate, the highest operating margin, the best patient satisfaction. Unfortunately, infighting occurs when that healthy competition turns into something unhealthy. That form of competition could be one leader trying to oust another from his/her position or intentionally trying to sabotage the individual.

3. Let all voices be heard. Infighting may also occur when people simply do not feel they are being heard. A leader, or employee, may feel they are standing at the mountain top screaming at the top of his/her lungs, but no one is listening. When someone doesn't feel heard, they continue telling and telling and telling their story until someone finally gets the message. The more they are ignored, the more they aren't validated, the more someone doesn't say "I'm sorry that happened to you" or "How can I help you," the more they are going to try to get someone to listen. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to tell someone something over and over again and having it land on deaf ears every single time. Even if a leader is "busy," listening to staff, leaders, physicians, and other key stakeholders should be his/her priority.

4. Make an adversary an advocate. In junior high P.E. classes, kids would pick their friends to be on their teams. Everyone would stand in line patiently waiting to be picked and would start getting nervous about who was going to get picked last. The longer the kids waited to be picked for a team, the more upset they became. Then, they maybe didn't perform as well once they were on the team, because they knew they were "last choice". In infighting, a similar situation exists. When an individual feels that his/her voice isn't being heard or that he/she isn't being included in the decision making process, then that person may become adversarial. Leaders know who their adversaries are in their organization.  Typically, there is an adversarial group that has developed over time...because the people who felt they were not being heard also have a group of followers who also felt they were not heard. In order to circumvent or alleviate that problem, leaders need to bring the adversary to the table. They need to, again, listen to what the person has to say. They need to ask the person to join their team. Once on the team, they need to treat the person with the level of dignity and respect that individual  deserves. After that, he/she may slowly start to see things a different way. Over time, given the right circumstances, the adversary will become the leaders' advocate.

5. Go for the compromise. Health care is a business. Business is a game. Games are about competition. Competition is about winning. Everyone wants to be at the top and be the final decision maker. However, that simply is not a realistic view of how decision making works. Nevertheless, leaders do need to compromise to reduce infighting. Drawing a line in the sand or leaders standing firm on their spots, is not going to reduce infighing for leaders. Instead, once everyone is at the table, once everyone's voices have been heard, once everyone has been listened to, once everyone is included, then a compromise can take place. A "We Win" and "You Lose" mentality simply cannot exist in a healthy organizational culture. Instead, leaders need to come up with a compromise that is a "Win-Win-Win" for everyone involved.