Leadership and motivation

May 1, 2003
Dentistry, more than most businesses, depends on teamwork. The dentist without a dental assistant is practically dysfunctional.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, MBA

Dentistry, more than most businesses, depends on teamwork. The dentist without a dental assistant is practically dysfunctional. The absence of a dental assistant on any given day usually means slower treatment, stress, and general chaos.

The clinical team depends on the front-desk staff for patient appointments, billing, collections, insurance claims, and all the other administrative tasks. In short, a dental practice closely resembles an ecosystem — each individual part contributes to the whole. Damage one part and it endangers function at every level.

The dentist as leader

Few practitioners understand how much the "ecosystem" depends on the dentist for leadership. The line between leadership and friendship becomes blurred because of the informal, day-to-day interaction that is essential for effective team communication. Dentists often think of team members as friends rather than as people who need mentoring and direction.

For practice systems to function effectively, it is essential that every dentist develop leadership skills. Systems are not static; they depend on the people who operate them. Leadership skills allow the dentist to help the team do the best possible job despite inevitable changes. Properly exercising leadership skills helps the team understand their responsibilities and accountabilities in the ever-changing practice environment. Leadership has three major components:

Leading by example

Recognizing that different things motivate different people

Creating a vision

Leading by example — Dentists must understand that they are role models for their team. A dentist who is positive, motivational, and upbeat will transmit these values to the team. By observing the dentist's behavior, the team will appreciate that the main purpose of the practice is not only to make money for the dentist and employ the team, but also create the right environment for their patients.

Conversely, a negative dentist who is dispirited or depressed and who bad-mouths patients will create a team that has a negative attitude, does not focus on customer service, and has conflicts between team members. All of this adds to chaos, stress, and low productivity.

Motivating each individual — No one thing will motivate everybody. Money is the primary motivator for some staff members, while flexibility may be crucial to others. A leader will make an effort to discover what motivates each individual and then uses this information to continue to motivate that person. Every dentist wants a team that is high-powered and growing — not stagnant and resistant to change.

Creating a vision — The leader is responsible for creating a vision of what the practice should do and where it should go. Vision statements (where the practice is going) and mission statements (the practice's intention) are not meant to boost morale. They are meant to help the team understand how to make decisions. Any decision that fits the practice vision or mission is usually correct. Teach your team to use your carefully crafted vision and mission statements as guides for decision-making.

For example, if part of your vision statement is that every patient will receive Wow!-level customer service, then the front desk staff always knows to err on the side of service. This method at least allows for better service. It's never advisable to constantly violate policies, but there are times when decisions must be made without consulting the leader/dentist. Adhering to vision and mission statements always leads to good — if not perfect — decision-making.

Leadership is not a genetic trait, but a learned skill that requires training, focus, and practice. But the benefits of becoming an excellent leader and developing a high-powered team can make a significant difference in the short- and long-term success of your practice.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, MBA, president and CEO of The Levin Group and the Levin Advanced Learning Institute, provides worldwide leadership in dental management for general dentists and specialists. Contact The Levin Group at (410) 654-1234.

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