Communications workshop: Tools every dentist needs

Nov. 1, 2002
Chapter five, Part two continues the discussion about the role of feedback and evaluation in creating — and sustaining — good staff relations.

by Sandy Roth

Chapter five, Part two continues the discussion about the role of feedback and evaluation in creating — and sustaining — good staff relations.

In part one of this article, we discussed the importance of feedback as part of the ongoing effort to sustain good staff relations. This month, I want to show practitioners a step-by-step approach to giving performance evaluations, as well as some additional tips on how feedback can keep interoffice relationships healthy.

1 Dentists must have a written description of each position that outlines all the role, including how the position fits into the big picture, and the areas of direct accountability. The job description must also include specific expectations associated with the role. A lack of clearly defined expectations is what makes evaluations so difficult. If you don't know what you expect of your employees, how can you possibly evaluate their performance?

2 Once you have a written description of the position, both the employee and the dentist, as well as any team members involved in the evaluation, must prepare to meet with the employee. In most cases, the dentist should not be the sole evaluator. Busy dentists cannot observe each employee's performance every day; therefore, other responsible team members can help with the process. Each staff member can have a sponsoring or supporting group — the evaluation team — to participate in the process. On each relevant job task, the employee and evaluation team members are asked to comment and identify their perspectives. The evaluation team should determine whether the employee met, did not meet, or exceeded the obligations and expectations of the position. Remember, the team member being evaluated prepares to respond to this question as well. Thus, the employee is a participant in the evaluation process, along with key team members and the dentist.

3 All relevant parties should participate in the evaluation meeting. Plan to take at least one hour or longer. One team member should act as a facilitator. This person must ensure that all parties are heard and that the discussion flows reasonably.

The team reviews the obligations and expectations of the position, with each member contributing his or her perspective. Identify where you agree and disagree. If possible, continue the discussion until everyone understands the conclusion, even if they don't necessarily agree with it.

4 Identify each of the four types of change to review:
• Tasks the employee will increase because they are valuable to the practice
• Tasks the employee will decrease because they are not valuable or worth the effort
• Tasks the employee will discontinue altogether
• New tasks the employee will undertake.

Be sure to outline the results you expect from the employee's effort.

5 Identify any learning, training, or growth needs. In addition, develop a plan for reducing those tasks or that are not particularly valuable to the practice. Who will take on the task? When will it be transferred? How will the new person be trained and by whom? Finally, identify the impact you expect from the increased effort.

6 Rewrite the position description and include the specifics and expectations. This will become the new measure for future performance reviews.

7 Develop markers to measure growth and progress in each of these new areas. How can you tell when the employee is successful? This step ensures that you will have the means to evaluate performance next time.

8 Set a date for the next performance evaluation and be sure to identify who will be involved in the process. Each person then is obligated to remain aware and be prepared for the next meeting.

9 Thank each other for a job well done. This is a sophisticated, mature approach to performance evaluations. If you have come this far, you are a top group. Bravo!

Performance evaluations are a healthy and necessary part of every practice. Many dentists avoid performance evaluations because they are sometimes awkward. But I guarantee that if you engage in this process, you actually will look forward to performance evaluations.

Here are a few thoughts about supportive feedback and praise, which is essential for almost everyone:

There's no such thing as too much praise. Earlier this year, I mentioned this principle to a group of team members who coordinate their specialists' study clubs, and they roundly confirmed this idea. Employees want their work to make a difference and praise is one means of showing the impact they make.

Team members are frustrated when they regularly hear what they have done wrong, yet rarely hear recognition of what they are doing well. Dentists often struggle with this issue. In many cases their temperament is the primary culprit. If your attitude is cynical or negative, you will have difficulty delivering genuine praise. you won't immediately see the good there is to acknowledge. Moreover, angry people sometimes look for an external cause for their problems, and start playing the blame game. Blame is the most insidious form of negative feedback. It may justify your bad mood (and therefore help you retain that mood), but it also belittles others. It does nothing worthwhile.

In other cases, dentists have too much on their minds to pay attention to what is going right. But the new/old adage, "Catch people doing something right" makes a lot of sense. If you don't force yourself out of your narrow frame of reference, you will fail to see people performing at their best. Ask yourself what goes on at the front desk or in a part of the practice you rarely visit. If you don't know the answer, how can you know all the good stuff that is going on there?

Positive feedback, praise, and acknowledgement are tools that help define the parameters of performance and inspire repeated good deeds. No question about it, people will continue positive actions when they are thanked and acknowledged. If you have hired an unskilled person who lags in learning the essentials of the position, carping won't help. As people learn, however, they take cues from whatever is admired and appreciated. Give your team lots of positive reinforcement for their good work and they will do more of it.

Praise should never be used as a free ticket to deliver a "zinger." I was once in a practice that had developed an interesting feedback format. You couldn't say a "bad" thing without first and subsequently delivering a positive statement. I call that a "zinger sandwich." People aren't stupid. It quickly becomes clear that the positive statements are all disingenuous and forced to get a free ticket to complain. The distrust in this situation is enormous. After all, if you can't trust praise that is freely given, what can you trust?

You can't put feedback in an atomizer, occasionally squirting its essence around the practice and expect it to be effective. You need a syringe. "Good job, everyone" doesn't cut it. You must be specific with praise. Identify not only the person to whom you are directing the praise, but also the behavior you admire and the outcome that resulted from the behavior. If Susan handled a particularly delicate situation well, make sure your feedback is that specific.

Make praise a public affairs program. Private praise is okay, but you miss a valuable opportunity to set standards and show everyone that good deeds will not go unrecognized. Don't worry that other employees will overhear you; instead, worry that they won't! If necessary, call the team together for a short celebration. Ignore any concern about teacher's pet or playing favorites. It is a good thing to favor good performance.

Make praise a timely event. Praise in the moment is more powerful than praise saved for a more "convenient" time. It takes more time to remember later and address a good act than to speak up the moment it happens. In most cases, praise can be delivered in front of patients and most anyone who happens to be in earshot. "Gorgeous temporary, Susan! Mrs. Jones, you're going to like how that looks. Susan did a great job for you there." Spontaneous praise like this is fabulous!

Avoid phony praise. If you have looked everywhere and can't find anything to reward, don't make something up or praise mediocre performance. When you do, you set the standard at that point and authorize people to continue performing at that level. Phony praise also undermines legitimate positive feedback.

Of course, praise isn't enough. People want to be rewarded in other, sometimes more tangible, ways as well. But raises and bonuses without praise are hollow and meaningless. I understand how hard it may be for many of you to take this on, but I encourage you to do so right away. You will be absolutely astonished at the major climate change you can create by making it your business to recognize and comment on good works regularly. Everyone will benefit from a more productive, happier, and proud set of employees.

Building Blocks: a guided practice

Your assignment for this month is to begin the feedback process with each of your employees. I believe that periodic reflection and evaluation often yield a positive outcome that might not have been attained during the status quo. Many dentists have admitted that they avoid setting up a regular performance evaluation process; I hope all of you will make an opportunity to remedy that within the next few months. Between now and when you begin, you can do a lot to create a more positive climate. You make an important decision in choosing how you relate to your team members daily, and I would like to help you consciously choose a supportive, encouraging approach.

To learn more about how you can develop your communication skills, call Sandy Roth at (800) 848-8326 or email her at [email protected] for a catalogue of learning resources.

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