Overcoming barriers to change

As a provider of continuing education courses, I have met thousands of dental professionals over the years.

As a provider of continuing education courses, I have met thousands of dental professionals over the years. Occasionally, at the end of a session, there will be a doctor or hygienist who stays until everyone has left and wants to talk. Most of these conversations start out the same:

  • I can't get my dental hygienist to __________
  • My doctor won't let me _________

The frustration on their faces is obvious, along with the hope that somehow I'll offer that "magic bullet." I have a love/hate relationship with these moments. It's rewarding that in a few hours with someone, they trust me with one of their most painful dilemmas. At the same time, from experience, I know they clearly view the problem as residing with the recalcitrant individual. So, I understand they won't be prepared for what I have to say, and that I must say it carefully.

Change is not an action; it's a process. Mandating change doesn't work; leading people through the process does.

Leading change requires the open and willing sharing of values and ideas, which include dissenting opinions. It is hard work. Building critical mass and forging consensus are time consuming. With it, trust builds and team loyalty is enhanced. Without it, the seeds of resentment and individualism grow.

So what advice do I have for my troubled participants? I suggest they begin with a self-assessment of how they approach change with their colleagues.

Ask yourself the following questions about initiating change in your practice:

Are you empathetic or emphatic?

Oftentimes, when we reach the point where we're ready to initiate change, we have mentally worked through the process and likely feel very strongly about it. This fervor can blindside our colleagues — who thought everything was going well. Both parties often walk away angry and bewildered.

A better approach is to "bring the individual along" much earlier in the process. For example, if you have just attended a course or read an article about a new product and want to recommend it, the path will be far easier if you plan how to discuss this change. First, schedule a meeting with all the people in the office who will be stakeholders in the process. Nothing has the potential to cause more apprehension and resistance than bringing up a subject unexpectedly during lunch or when someone is on the way out the door at night. Second, do your homework. Locate the scientific studies on the product and bring them in for discussion. Research other data that supports your decision, such as information on the preferred brand and models, cost considerations, profit, and company support. Make copies for everyone. This allows people to take the materials home to review and reflect. Finally, don't expect an immediate answer. Instead, schedule a second meeting. This allows people not only time to think about it but also to do some of their own homework. It might also be the time to invite the corporate representative to talk about the product. This not only helps build critical mass and consensus, but it also creates ownership and a higher level of commitment to the change.

Is it adventurous or arduous?

This is mostly about mindset. If you believe that change is only going to happen with a lot of resistance and drama, then it probably will. On the other hand, if your approach is "we're all in this together," then you might just have some fun along the way.

Leading people through change means setting the tone. This doesn't mean there won't be times of frustration; however, if you view that as normal rather than a problem, it goes a long way toward smoothing the path.

For example, let's say you're considering taking your office paperless. For many, the mere thought produces anxiety. But once you've done your preliminary work (see above — "... empathetic or emphatic?"), you now have a new choice. You can develop a sense of adventure by empowering the change through positive energy and motivation, or you can make it an arduous task by focusing on fear and apprehension. Setting these demons aside is no easy task, but the reward from believing in people helps your project succeed and, moreover, contributes to a sense of community and loyalty within your dental team.

What works better, change or challenge?

Since change is often a challenge, it might seem difficult to distinguish between the two. In some cases, such as illness, or changes in personnel or ownership, the change is beyond our control. But most of the time, when it comes to day-to-day business, we do have control over the challenges we face. Unfortunately, we either overlook this or we don't thinkit's important enough to manage. The result of neglecting these challenges is that eventually, they must be dealt with — and that's usually where the dread of change comes in!

Challenging your team keeps them interested, inspired, and more likely to bring up innovations on their own. Staff meetings are a great venue for this. Allow some time at each meeting for anyone to speak who has an idea or suggestion for improvement. For this to be successful, you need some ground rules, primarily that everyone shows respect for the person submitting the idea. For people to feel free to open up on their ideas, dreams, and aspirations, they must think the environment is safe and that they can trust their colleagues. One tenet that many who speak and write on leadership affirm is that leaders do not always have to have the best ideas. Rather, the most effective leaders recognize good ideas in others and find a way to get them adopted.

Whether you want to add a service or make a major renovation such as going paperless, acquiring the competencies to lead your team through change can take you and your practice to new levels. It's a skill that can be learned and improved with practice. All it takes is a little time and determination.

Carol Jahn, RDH, MS, is the manager of professional education and communications for Water Pik, Inc. She provides continuing education programs on periodontal disease and the oral-systemic link and diabetes. She can be reached at cjahn@waterpik.com.

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