Physicians Are Conflict Avoiders?

As any medical group looks to create or improve its system of governance, important concepts of group dynamics must be considered.

Of most importance to medical groups is how individuals approach conflict management in group settings.

Two researchers (Thomas and Kilmann) found that people react in one of five basic ways when faced with interpersonal conflict: by competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating.  The five behaviors are arranged along two dimensional axis, from assertive to non-assertive, and from cooperative to uncooperative.  In 1974 Thomas and Kilmann introduced their Conflict Mode Instrument which can be used to assess conflict-handling behavior.

Modes of Conflict

Modes of Conflict

In several of our consultant projects we used the Conflict Mode Instrument to survey the physicians. In every case we found that, in regards to physician-to-physician relations, 80% of the physicians were conflict avoiders!

While it is true that some physicians are very adept at dealing with conflict (and some may actually enjoy it), most are conflict avoiders.

If you are an experienced medical group manager or group leader, I bet you have seen this in your own personal experience:

  • Have you ever had Dr. A come to your office and complain about Dr. B? And then 30 minutes later, Dr. B come in and complain about Dr. A?
  • Do you ever have “after the meeting” meetings, where individuals complain that certain issues were not raised or discussed at the meeting?
  • Do you ever see passive-aggressive behavior at play?

This situation is important to remember as you construct your system of governance. For example:

  • You might consider using “secret ballots” when voting on controversial issues. This can be as easy as using 3 x 5 cards, are as sophisticated as using an electronic voting system.
  • Every group should establish meeting ground rules to encourage dialog at group meetings such that conflict can be resolved in acceptable ways.
  • Board and officer elections need to be carefully structured and rigorously conducted in order to assure that all feel they could vote their individual conscience.


I will expand on each of these ideas further in upcoming posts.

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss this post.

Will Latham

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