This is the time of year for gratitude, and each year, I am always very grateful for our lab team and team spirit. Our collaborative inter-professional approach to our work is, in my opinion, what makes the discipline of pathology and laboratory medicine unique, successful and extra special. In fact, my husband drew my attention to this just a few weeks ago when he attended the American Society of Cytopathology meeting with me. He commented on the close relationship that he observed between cytotechnologists and cytopathologists at the meeting, the mutual respect shown by both professions for each other's contributions and roles, and the society's inclusiveness in including both professions as members and in fostering the team spirit necessary to deliver diagnostic services. In his opinion, inter-professional relationships were not as strong or as congenial in his field, orthopedic surgery. I believe that this team spirit is not unique to cytopathology, and is in fact pervasive throughout all of pathology and laboratory medicine, making our specialty a model for others.

But I'm not just grateful for our collaborative and harmonious times, I'm also grateful for our rocky moments, and yes, even our conflict. In fact, I consider conflict to be a gift — it means members of the team are willing to speak up and rock the boat a little about what bothers them so that issues can be explored and addressed, preventing resentments from simmering and becoming destructive. Speaking up can be uncomfortable, and even a little bit scary – no gift comes cheap – but it is a gift of great value since it demonstrates commitment to colleagues, to the workplace, and to improvement, and may circumvent even bigger problems like medical errors, harassment, or retention issues. Participating in solutions to resolve conflict is also a gift. Ideally, a healthy level of dissonance and engagement among colleagues should create better outcomes and a more pleasant work environment.

I was therefore really pleased to see an article published just a few weeks ago in Academic Medicine about rethinking the role of conflict.1 The article's premise is that the health professions don't adequately appreciate the positive gifts behind conflict, and that conflict should be embraced as an integrative force that shapes a collaborative, team-based culture. The author — who interestingly is a pathologist – notes that in business, conflict is seen as inevitable and a source of innovation, but that in the health professions, conflict has traditionally been seen as disruptive, unprofessional, and as a potential source of error.

The Academic Medicine article contains many suggestions on how to use conflict more effectively. My favorite is the suggestion to change our current simplistic perceptions of professionalism and collaboration to a perspective that “more readily embraces conflict, contradiction, and dissent, allowing space for the conflicting viewpoints of seemingly uncollaborative individuals.”1 The author also recommends re-framing our view of conflict, so that it is not seen as a problem to be avoided or quickly resolved. Instead, conflict should be viewed as a resource for learning, innovation, and positive change.1 I'd like to add that this perspective is central to the values of the University of California whose commitment to diversity of thought, to exploring contradiction and conflict, and to using these experiences as creative and transformative forces improve our world locally and globally.

As 2017 draws to a close and I reflect on our year, I'm not ashamed to say that we have had many conflicts, large and small – like we have had every year. I believe that these have all been gifts for positive change. We have used conflicts surrounding priorities for clinical research versus patient care in our clinical labs to create new and better processes, including our new Clinical Research Oversight Committee. We have used critical feedback from clients to improve our clinical services and launch a more collaborative inter-disciplinary approach to quality improvement. We have had conflicts in both our research and clinical areas which have provided opportunities to improve interpersonal and leadership skills. I could list many more – and I'm sure we'll have more to come since conflict is a natural and expected part of living and working as a community.

As is often said, the best gifts are from the heart, not the store. Heartfelt participation in the life of our department, patience, and support of colleagues and co-workers, even in times of conflict, are rich and wonderful gifts that I hope we all receive. I wish you and those you love a happy holiday season, and I look forward to a great 2018 together!

1) Eichbaum Q. Collaboration and teamwork in the health professions: rethinking the role of conflict. Acad Med 2017; doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002015, e-pub ahead of press (Accessed 11/29/2017)