Communications workshop: Tools every dentist needs

Oct. 1, 2002
Chapter five of this series is a two-part discussion about the importance of creating — and sustaining — good staff relations.

by Sandy Roth

Chapter five of this series is a two-part discussion about the importance of creating — and sustaining — good staff relations.

This year, we're dividing our time between the skills you must develop to work well with your patients and those you need to create healthy relationships with your team. In my last article devoted to team-building, I stressed the importance of clearly outlining the expectations you have for your staff. This step significantly increases the chances of creating a healthy working team.

However, once this initial ground work is in place, a new challenge arises: sustaining those good relations. Maintaining good relations with your staff is a daily obligation. It needn't be arduous or burdensome, but it does require the conscientious attention of the dentist. In this installment, I'll share some ideas to help you with those skills.

My husband Doug and I have two parti-colored Cocker Spaniels, Max and Willie. (They are featured in our Web site photo at The expert we purchased these marvelous dogs from breeds them for temperament because she knows that most of her puppies become pets rather than show dogs. Cocker Spaniels require a fair amount of care, including regular baths and grooming, and the breeder wants to ensure that the dog accepts this level of care readily. So, she begins bathing puppies when they are just a few weeks old. They're just little squirmy things at that age and not very dirty.

The purpose of these baths isn't really to get puppies clean, but to establish that getting a bath is a normal part of being a dog. If you wait until the dog is older and begins to get dirty, it will more likely resist baths. The moral of the story is that if you want to make something part of the expected routine, begin it early and do it often.

Now, what on earth does bathing puppies have to do with ongoing staff relations? I'll get there in a moment, but I have one other bit of information to put forth first.

My clients often call upon me to help them hire new team members. In most cases, my challenge is to slow the dentist down so the process is done correctly. Understandably, dentists are anxious to hire quickly and often want to cut corners. Because dentists insist on substantial autonomy — thank goodness!— my perspective doesn't always prevail.

Clients sometimes will disagree with the training and transition plan that I present. In general, I recommend that the initial six weeks of employment be organized as a training and transition period. I suggest a planned and formal structure that organizes all training into a logical and reasonable sequence of one-week blocks. At the end of each week, the dentist, new employee, and relevant team members sit down together to evaluate progress, give feedback, establish priorities for the subsequent week, ask and answer questions, and deal with any issues before they become big problems.

The purpose of these weekly meetings is primarily as advertised. But, in addition, there is a secondary agenda as well: to give the "puppy" regular baths from an early age. Think about it: In many cases, dentists are as unaccustomed to giving evaluations as staff members are to receiving them.

As a result, dentists tend to avoid evaluations and staff members fail to get the feedback to which they are entitled and that they need to succeed. In many cases, the first formal performance review happens only after an employee has been working for over a year and the doctor can't delay it any longer. By then, so much water has passed under the bridge that the evaluation is awkward and rarely helpful.

One thing is certain: No one ever becomes highly successful in the absence of performance evaluation and feedback. That, you can take to the bank!

If you want your team members to function at a high level, contribute to the success of the practice in unique ways, become accomplished at their work, accept responsibility for important aspects of the practice, develop initiative, and grow in their abilities, you must regularly engage in performance evaluations. Here are a few relevant questions to consider:

What has the employee been hired to do? What are the expectations of the position?

  1. How does the employee see herself performing? What is the employee's assessment of her impact and the degree to which she is meeting or exceeding expectations?
  2. How do the dentist and other team members see the employee performing? What is their assessment of her impact and the degree to which she is meeting or exceeding expectations?
  3. Where does the employee see herself going from here? How will that benefit the practice? What skills and training will she need in this new step? What are the expectations associated with that growth? What will she do in this next step?
  4. Where do the dentist and other team members see the employee going from here? How will that benefit the practice? What skills and training will the employee need in this new step? What expectations come with that growth? What will the dentist and team be called upon to support in this next step?

That's it. Simple, yet hardly easy. You'll notice that the plan calls for team members to be involved in evaluations. This is essential. The dentist can't be the only person involved in evaluations — for obvious reasons. Nonclinical, administrative, and hygiene staff function mostly outside of the dentist's field of vision and hearing.

Moreover, team members must become accustomed to coaching one another and to giving feedback and evaluation without childish reactions such as, "Who are you to tell me what to do? You're not my boss!"

Indeed, senior (in responsibility and practice impact, not employment tenure) staff must be involved in evaluating one another, as well as those team members who require greater care and feeding. The way to help them learn to do this is to involve them from the first weeks of an employee's placement. This also helps new employees understand that peer evaluation is expected, sanctioned, and valued.

Evaluations needn't be an ordeal for either the employee or the dentist. If your team becomes accustomed to peer assessment early on, it will be seen as a helpful and necessary part of practice growth, team development, and employee support. And if you need something to help you remember how important this is, just think about Max and Willie. Every Wednesday they get a bath. And they love it!

Next month, Sandy continues this vital discussion on sustaining good staff relations with a step-by-step review on how to conduct proper performance evaluations.

To learn more about how to develop 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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