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Dealing with Drama in Sterile Processing: Important Thoughts on Team Dynamics

Let’s face it, most sterile processing departments have to deal with drama. Any context where you have a team of people, complex tasks, customer service expectations, and high stress is a prime opportunity for drama to occur. Unfortunately, sometimes even the people who say they hate drama the most are the ones who are actually drawn to it like a moth to a flame. So how do you manage all this as a leader or navigate it safely as a frontline technician? Here are a few important thoughts on wisely handling the dynamics of your team in a way that reduces drama and encourages real teamwork and professionalism.

Remember the humanity of the troublemakers
Most department leaders and coworkers can easily pinpoint the source of the majority of drama on a team. Often it stems primarily from a small group of individuals or sometimes even just one bad apple who is threatening to spoil the entire lot. As tempting as it may be to come down hard on individual troublemakers right out of the gate, an important step for department leaders and coworkers is to remember the humanity of these drama-filled individuals. No one who has a great home life comes to work with the intention of stirring up trouble with their peers. Any number of things could be causing huge amounts of stress, hopelessness, and disorientation in their personal lives which cannot help but have an impact on their time at work (family members with cancer, one car for two wage-earners and three jobs, sick kids, broken finances, etc.).

These causes do not excuse the kind of drama that disrupts the department and stirs up strife, but remembering that these things exist can help explain some of the types of responses that our team members have in high-stress situations. If you have someone on your team who seems to live on drama at work but you’ve never asked them if anything outside of the department is causing them stress, it is worth asking the question. They do not have to and may not answer the question—that is their prerogative. But seeking to understand the why behind the drama is a critical first step to dealing with it effectively among your teams.

Decisively uphold standards for culture and communication
Personal matters aside, your sterile processing department has a mission to accomplish, and to do so, there is a certain standard for culture and communication that must be attained. Regardless of the reasons, department drama cannot be tolerated. When technicians begin focusing on each other’s personalities and not on the work at hand, we begin doing an injustice to our patients and that is not only unfair, it’s also unsafe.

An important example of upholding professional communication can be seen in how you deal with the drama that can be created around anonymous complaints. By this we are not talking about reports to a compliance hotline or official grievances. Instead, these are the types of comments that are often made to lead technicians, supervisors, and managers that go something like, “A lot of folks are complaining about the new assignments for next week,” or “Some people are skipping steps in decontamination.” Because these statements reference some anonymous group or individual, their truthfulness is impossible to verify for both leaders and coworkers. They can cause serious issues when they are targeted against individuals, such as, “Second shift really doesn’t like Johnny because he’s too slow,” or “Everyone knows the manager gives Susan special treatment because they went to high school together.”

The best way to counteract this is to set a standard for communication that requires specifics. If staff members would like to report an issue, ask them to clarify who has concerns and what those concerns actually are. And then bring those other folks to the table—either one-on-one or in a group setting—to discuss the issues like the professionals you expect them to be. No one wins in the world of anonymous complaints except those who have weaponized them for their own purposes.

Drive accountability, even if it hurts
One of the most common challenges in dealing with drama is the fact that the culprits may be an important and productive part of the sterile processing team. Too many times this tends to insulate them from the accountability that they deserve for their actions. In other words, people who should have been dealt with years ago because they constantly gossip, lie, and instigate are still hanging around because they also happen to be the highest performers on day shift. Managers and directors may feel like they have no other option than to manage and mitigate the effect of the drama, but are scared of losing the level of knowledge and productivity that the troublemakers represent.

As tempting as it may be to compromise at this point, it is impossible to build and maintain a vibrant department culture of open communication and trust if drama kings and queens are not held accountable for their negative impact on the entire sterile processing team. Yes, in the short term it may hurt to lose people like this, but the long-term impact of professionalism and team work will far exceed the dip in productivity you might experience in the interim.

Even with the life and death drama of surgery, our reprocessing teams should not have to be held captive to the needless drama of bad attitudes and unprofessionalism. Leaders must take a proactive approach to understanding the dynamics behind these issues, and frontline technicians must do their own part to stay focused on the real purpose of their jobs. While it is impossible to leave everything going on at home at the department door, it is possible to work together as a surgical team to keep the patients we serve front and center.

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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