Difficult situations can arise in most work and training
environments. These can be particularly challenging if there is
a power imbalance between yourself and the person you have
the difficult situation with. If handled effectively, these can be a
valuable growth opportunity and can result in a better working
environment for all the parties. If handled poorly or worse, if
ignored, these issues can escalate to become a significant conflict
situation, which can seriously damage the working environment.
Developing skills to identify and manage disagreements in the
workplace is important and worth taking the time to consider.
Many workplaces may already have established processes for
dealing with conflict situations, so it is useful to check with your
clinic or department administrator regarding current policies and
protocols that may be in place.
Common situations that can lead to a difficult situation between
a doctor and their supervisor include:
- a patient or staff complaint
- a performance management discussion
- a performance appraisal
- for junior doctors, a supervisor report or issues about
mentoring or clinical supervision
- disagreement about a clinical diagnosis or treatment plan
- fatigue issues
- irregular meetings, resulting in limited opportunity for
feedback on performance
- an expectation to work after-hours shifts and do the ‘on call’
roster on an unequal basis
- terms and conditions of employment, such as leave
entitlements or an entitlement to paid overtime
- inappropriate communication with staff
- disputes over timeliness.
Tips for approaching a difficult situation
The best advice for negotiating a difficult situation with your
supervisor is to take your time to think about the issue(s) and to
prepare before approaching your supervisor.
Don’t ignore the situation
There is some truth in the phrase ‘you should pick your battles’ and
in some circumstances you may decide not to follow through with
an issue you have. That said; if the situation is causing you distress
and restricting your ability to do your job, undertake your training
requirements and to learn, you need to act.
Put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes
Understanding, empathy and respect are key attributes and
behaviours in conflict situations. Always be open to trying to
understand your supervisor’s point of view. Don’t burn any
bridges, by acting hastily, be respectful at all times and be
mindful of acting on assumptions that may be incorrect. Avoid
letting misunderstandings escalate out of control.
Share the problem with a trusted friend or colleague
Do you have a good perspective? Are your emotions clouding
your judgement? Be prepared for the possibility that the problem
may be you. A close friend or colleague should be able to assist
you in looking at the situation more objectively and help you
identify your role in the relationship. It also helps to be able to
verbalise your concerns and run through the discussion.
Consider an informal chat
We recommend planning the conversation with your supervisor.
Contact them and explain that you would like to meet with
them, outlining what you would like to talk about (this can be
done by email if you prefer). Preparation such as this helps set
the right tone for a meeting and avoids the situation where
your supervisor feels ambushed because they have not had the
opportunity to prepare. Remember, nobody reacts well if they
feel backed into a corner.
Choose an appropriate time where the other party is more
amenable to listening and there are as few time pressures or
other distractions as possible. A neutral venue is usually a good
option, which is away from other people.
Before you speak with your supervisor, think about the issues and
your own understanding of them. Having the issues clear in your
mind will help you articulate them better, especially in situations
where you may be nervous. Try to objectively assess the situation
by removing your emotional response from the issues.
Prepare well for the discussion, have concrete examples of your
concerns and issues and be specific. Use ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’
statements. Focus on the issues, not the personalities and
do not lay blame.
Document the issue
Make sure you record the issue and the steps you have taken
to try and resolve it.
Escalate as necessary
You may want to investigate the situation further and gather
more information. If the outcome of the informal process
is unsatisfactory you may need to consider a more formal
approach. This could include seeking advice from the hospital
administration or human resources department, and following
the dispute guidelines within the institution. It may also involve
speaking with your college, if the issue affects your training.
If you have pursued these avenues and the conflict can’t be
resolved between you and your supervisor, then you may consider
seeking help from your training college, or for immediate advice
on employment related disputes contact our Medico-legal
Advisory Service on 1800 128 268, 24/7 in emergencies.
- Act on the conflict situation promptly.
- Think things through before you react.
- Always behave respectfully. Focus on the issues, not the
- Be aware of the types of issues that can turn into conflict
- Aim to negotiate a solution that is acceptable to both parties.
- If the conflict can’t be resolved, seek help.
Saltman DC, O’Dea NA, Kidd MR. Conflict management: a primer
for doctors in training Postgrad Med J 2006;82:9–12.
Miller K. Organizational communication: Approaches and
processes (6th ed). Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014.