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Happy Dental Team

4 ways to attract, motivate, and keep your dental team

Oct. 7, 2021
Are you struggling to hire dental team members? It may be time to take a good look at how you run your practice. This dentist shares his must-dos for building a great team.

Besides the continued economic challenges of COVID-19, the US is facing another challenge—a severe dental workforce shortage. According to a June 9, 2021, report from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, more than 80% of hiring dentists are having a very difficult time finding hygienists and dental assistants.

Additional data from a May poll from the ADA Health Policy Institute found that “35.8% of owner-dentists are recruiting dental assistants, 28.8% are seeking dental hygienists, 26.5% are looking to hire administrative staff, and 13.1% are in search of associate dentists—all four percentages representing a rise in recruitment since October 2020.”

In talking with my dental colleagues, I suspect that these percentages are even higher today. To maintain a productive practice and because of these alarming statistics, dentists need to step up their leadership and communication skills to provide a desirable practice for their existing team members and to attract new members.

It’s important to understand why people leave their jobs. According to an article on Indeed.com titled 16 reasons employees leave their jobs, money was the number two reason. Other reasons included lack of a challenge, poor management, lack of communication and training, not feeling valued, lack of recognition, lack of follow-through, no feedback, and no vision for the future.

If you are presently dealing with staff turnover, you need to look at yourself, the state of your practice, the existing team members, your leadership, your management, and your communication skills. This self-examination will help you see your role regarding staff turnover. Perhaps your expectations of your team are not clear. Perhaps you’re not doing annual performance reviews. Perhaps your team members are feeling unappreciated and overworked. The best way to learn why someone left your practice is to hold exit interviews. These meetings, as difficult as they may be, are an opportunity to gain information to help you improve your practice and retain your employees.

4 steps to retain and motivate dental team members

Offer a competitive salary

With the shortage in the dental workforce, you need to pay team members an hourly salary that is competitive for your area. If you are not sure if the wages you’re offering are in the ballpark, you can visit one of several free websites with salary surveys. Some of these websites include dentaleconomics.com, dentalpost.net, ada.org, forbes.com, salary.com, and danb.com. Many of the recruiting websites, such as indeed.com, glassdoor.com, and ziprecruiter.com, also provide salary data. Regardless of whether these salary numbers fit into your budget, you need to find a way to offer a competitive salary.

Through the years, when team members discussed their pay, I noticed that most of them focused solely on their hourly wage and knew little about the value on their benefits. As practice owners, we know the high cost and value of these benefits. A great way to help team members see the value of their benefits is to annually provide a summary of benefits statement. Along with the hourly salary, spell out their total compensation package by listing the benefits you offer to both full-time and part-time employees.

This list of benefits will include paid time off, paid holidays, uniform expenses and laundry costs, insurance benefits, payroll taxes, paid continuing education, association dues, and retirement plans. Assigning a dollar amount to each of these helps employees see the total value of their compensation packages. Through the years, my team members were often surprised by these statements, saying, “I had no idea how much these were worth.”

Communicate clearly, both orally and in writing

As I mentioned, one of the main reasons people quit their jobs is due to poor leadership and poor communication. These include unclear expectations, no job descriptions, and confusion due to lack of protocols, lack of praise and appreciation, no feedback on job performance, and team disharmony.

Psychologically, people want to be part of something great, part of an organization that is run well, and with a clearly defined mission. In contrast, a practice that focuses solely on making money doesn’t cut it when it comes to retaining team members. A great way to communicate the higher purpose of your practice is to have a written mission and vision statement that you espouse and live out. Empty platitudes or “framed words hung on the wall” do nothing to build team loyalty and trust. However, authentically living out your mission and defining the shared values with your team will foster a sense of personal belonging, build harmony, and create community. Some of your values could include attributes such as friendliness, timeliness, cleanliness, clinical excellence, honest communication, patient focus, and attention to detail.

In addition to being part of a purpose-driven practice, your team members also want to know what is expected of them. The best way to communicate your expectations is with written detailed job descriptions. In my office, each team member had two job descriptions. The first one was an “all-hands” one-page document that outlined the general expectations for everyone. The second outlined the duties for each individual role. When I created the “all-hands” job description, I sought input from the entire team. Together, we wrote this document during a couple of weekly team meetings.

As the team worked through this project, they defined their behavioral norms. To my delight, this process turned out to be a great team building exercise. Almost immediately they worked better together, helped each other out more, and were kinder to each other. When situations arose such as tardiness or disagreements over job responsibilities, I saw them refer to these job descriptions. As the leader, I stayed out of the way and watched as they held each other accountable and resolved their situations with the help of the job descriptions they had all agreed upon.

Other written communication plans you can use to build your team include written systems for effective morning huddles, a structure for productive team meetings, and protocols to solve problems and resolve conflicts. When deciding which systems to create first, start with ones that will help toward your goals and help you and your team work together efficiently and productively. Studies repeatedly prove that happier teams are more productive.

It’s imperative that you tell team members what you expect of them. Never assume they know. Specifically verbalize your needs and desires. You’ll be amazed how this step will reduce gossip, minimize negative assumptions, and lessen the guessing game.

When appropriate, praise and recognize each team member individually, especially when you notice them doing something extraordinary. In contrast, when a team member does something that bothers you, it’s essential to address it and give them feedback immediately. A great way to do that is to share your observations, the negative feelings they caused, and what you need from them. Conclude with an encouraging and simple phrase: “I’m giving you these comments because I know that you can reach them.”

Be enthusiastic, pleasant, and positive

As the leader of your practice, you need to model the attitudes and behavior you want from your team.  A powerful way to keep your employees engaged and happy is to be enthusiastic and positive. Are you the first one to arrive at the office? Do you greet employees with a cheerful, “Good morning”? At the end of the day, do you thank them for their hard work and wish them a pleasant evening? These social graces show your team that you respect and care about them. Having a positive workspace and being enthusiastic yourself creates positive energy that builds team morale.

I think we can all agree that dentistry is demanding and stressful. Because we’re human, I’m sure there have been times when you lost your cool and said things to your team you shouldn’t have. The best thing to do is sincerely apologize. When I blew up at my team years ago, I immediately apologized. They accepted it and moved on. The next morning, I brought them two half-pound bags of Dove chocolates.  

Be authentic and value them

Your leadership is a key component for keeping team members. Unfortunately, dental school does not adequately prepare us to be leaders. As you lead your team, it’s important that you are authentic in your actions. Act ethically, with integrity, and model the qualities you expect from them. It’s essential that you’re always honest and follow through on your promises.  

You also want to commit yourself to excellence, not only with your clinical dentistry, but with your management and communication. By dedicating yourself to excellence, you can ask your team to do the same. Make sure you’re financially taking care of them, especially before you spend money on new equipment or leasehold improvements. I have a dentist friend who hadn’t raised his teams’ wages in three years, and then spent thousands of dollars on new equipment. His decision to redo two treatment rooms left the staff feeling undervalued and unappreciated, and a few of them left the practice.

Perhaps now is the time to get creative with your hiring. Although it may not be ideal, job sharing might be a way to help people better balance their schedules and remain employed. You could allow members to come to work early and leave early. Doing these things may open doors for new hires.

Seek your team’s input when it comes to some decisions in the practice. Allow them to use their talents as they work together to solve practice problems, such broken appointments, meeting daily goals, clinical procedures, or dental supply management. Delegate responsibilities whenever possible. Allow your team to make mistakes and learn from them. Ask them what they like about their jobs and what new tasks they’d like to perform.

Finally, do all you can to foster a family atmosphere. I recommend that you hold team outings two to three times a year. You can surprise them with bagels some mornings or take them out to lunch or bring in takeout during a team meeting. Other ideas include writing a personal note in their holiday cards or giving gift cards. Use your imagination to show your team that you value them.

Putting it all together

If you want to retain team members during these challenging times and in the days ahead, examine how you treat them. Think about the different ways you can show your team how much you appreciate them. With good talent difficult to find, do all you can to help your existing team members succeed and feel valued. Create a practice that has a family atmosphere and is fun. Lastly, give them lots of reasons to feel that your office is the best place for them to work.

Robert M. Maguire, DDS, MASCL, is a dental speaker, coach, practice consultant, and DISC trainer, passionate about leadership and communication. If you’d like more information about Dr. Maguire and how he can help you and your team communicate better, visit thefulfillment.coach/ or email [email protected].

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