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4 basic keys to a dental staff that stays

July 6, 2022
At a time when retaining employees is a top stressor for many, is there a silver bullet? Keeping these 4 key needs in balance can improve stability and make employees want to stay.

You don’t have to search far to find a colleague complaining about staffing-related stress. Postpandemic, many consider this to be one of the greatest enemies of dentistry, often creating a toxic or transitional culture in the practice. We’ve found that although the industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, people are still people. There are four basic needs that, when in balance, will create team stability and reduce stress.

Earlier in my career, I worked with the largest case acceptance company in the industry. We trained thousands of dentists and teams from across the US and Canada. Doctors learned exceptional clinical skills from some of the most prominent postgraduate programs around, such as Pankey, Dawson, Misch, Kois, Hornbrook, and Dickerson, to name a few. Our attendee roster would read like a Who’s Who of dentistry on any given weekend. Through our research, we discovered four basic needs related to creating a healthy culture and work environment. We still share these and work to keep them in balance in the many practices we work with today.

The four needs are:

  • Praise
  • A sense of challenge
  • The opportunity to grow
  • Economic reward

And here's the silver bullet, or golden ticket. What we know from years of monitoring, measuring, and living this formula in our practices is this. If the four become unbalanced, the list turns upside down. It is the core of the staffing stress today and has led many to find themselves in a bidding war versus interviewing for a cultural fit. It's a time when mistrust, miscommunication, and misgivings run rampant in the pool of available candidates.

Related reading:

Retaining current dental staff

The dental staffing crisis


As humans, we all desire to be admired, appreciated, and praised for a job well done. It brings a sense of gratitude to life in your practice. Practices will spend thousands of dollars implementing a new system for more new patients, fewer cancellations, or streamlined impressions. But how often have you heard someone share their strategy for praising their team? It needs to be on a calendar, and someone should be the “mother,” like other significant systems, to make the practice run smoothly. There are many ways to show praise and appreciation, but it must be authentic and legitimate.

Here are a few ideas on where to begin: Knock Knock notepads—I love these notepads. You just have to fill in the blanks and check the boxes! They have several to choose from, but they are great and help you start the habit. If you want to be creative, you can design your own at Zazzle. I love being able to create something specific to your language, culture, and practice. 

A sense of challenge

This can be tricky. We know that some people become addicted to a particular video game, or a board game like Monopoly, due to the challenge of getting to the next level or to the win. Unfortunately, many practices aren’t providing ways for the team to be challenged, and others with control issues don’t want team members who enjoy a challenge. Either can become part of the culture. Keep in mind that balance is what makes you successful. Understanding the previous experience of your team is critical. It is one of the reasons you’ll always find a group of team members who want to reach goals and potentially bonus or get the weekly or monthly “gift” that is available for the person who reaches a goal first.

For example, create the opportunity for each department to be in charge of the social media post related to patients they’ll see or something happening specific to your team or industry. It’s a challenge for them to use their creativity and work together. For instance, you could have each department be responsible for creating a social media post they’ll be accountable for producing each month.

Then, at the end of the month, have a special outing or prize based on the post that received the most comments or likes. It’s a way to have groups work together within the team. We’ve also had someone represent each part of the practice, so people get to collaborate with individuals they don’t typically work with. It’s the challenge and working with those not generally in the same circle that sparks natural creativity and energy.

The opportunity to grow

Presenting the opportunity for team members to grow is something not many in dentistry have mastered. Since many private practices don’t offer a chance to advance, this is often elusive. When considering growth, think of additional certifications or skills that can meet both challenges and opportunities for development within your office. For example, larger practices generally have department leads. Department leads could have skills they must master As a department lead, one might be able to lead meetings, attend specific conferences and lunches, or make decisions for the department.Perhaps reaching department lead results in a stipend for the quarter served as the team lead. Be creative and think of other perks. For example, we once offered the choice between a nice weekend trip away or a stipend for the quarter. Keeping things new and different is a way to get different personality styles and multiple desires of the team served. The trip away was always worth more dollar value than the stipend. We believed (and proved repeatedly) that offering an experience went further than any dollar amount.

Economic reward

Economic reward could be the most misunderstood part of staffing today. Many people forget that most in dentistry are here because we love the spirit of service. Keeping the top three basic needs in check will allow us to keep the last one in line with the local market. The most misunderstood concept when hiring and retaining team members is that the formula will flip if the first three on this list are not in balance. The outcome is the most crucial element of new hires and retention and shouldn’t be based on economic reward alone.

Today we hear from team members who were promised a bonus and rarely achieved it. They speak of monthly challenges that generate thousands for the practice and a bonus that won’t fill the gas tank. Economic reward becomes “the item” versus “an item” to discuss in an interview or review. Don’t forget the online groups where others’ opinions weigh in, and the mistrust grows. We have to keep a pulse on all four needs and measure our complete offering to get this in check. I’ve interviewed many teams who’ve said they might not have the top pay in the area, but they’re in a practice where being heard and cared for is in sync, which doesn’t have a price.

If you would like a list of tips and examples of the four needs in action, email me at [email protected]. Subject line: “Tips on 4 team needs.”

Editor's note: This article appeared in the July 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

About the Author

JoAn Majors, RDA, CSP, CVP

JoAn Majors, RDA, CSP, CVP, cofounded The Soft Skills Institute with her dentist husband. She’s published in 25 magazines and newsletters and has written five books. Her latest is Permission to Be Honest: Tough Talk on Soft Skills. JoAn is a certified speaking professional (CSP), she holds the team training faculty for Misch Implant Institute, is a 2022 Industry Denobi Award Winner, serves on the advisory board for Dental Entrepreneur Women (DeW), and is a member of AADOM/ASCA, ADIA, DSI, NSA, and NSA Austin. Contact her at [email protected].

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