Profitable dental skills: the positive revolution

June 1, 2009
Think about the leaders you have followed in the past.

Kristine Hodsdon, RDH, BS

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: leaders, left brain, right brain, happiness, positive psychology, Kristine Hodsdon.

Think about the leaders you have followed in the past:

  • Which one had the most positive influence in your life?
  • What three words best describe what this person contributes to your life?

Understanding true leadership can be a monumental task. In a recent study — and in an attempt to bring more clarity to this complex topic — the Gallup Organization, one of the world's premier research-based management consulting firms, interviewed more than 10,000 people and asked them these two questions. I'll share the results of their study at the end of this article. But first, let's look at how left- and right-brain thinking shapes dentistry.

Left brain

The dental profession has been largely shaped by left-brain thinking. The left brain is a logical and rational thinker. It's the one that loves to know the facts and analyze the stats. It is comfortable with “if-then“ reasoning and step-by- step processes. It sees the world through binary pathways — things are black or white, on or off, adequate or not.

This thinking style has led to a lot of progress in patient care. From systematic restorative procedures to learning implant techniques, clinical care is grounded in steps, processes, and protocols. Dental management experts provide checklists, formulas, manuals, and office systems to save time, increase production, and deal with team matters. Logical thinking has served us well, and many offices are achieving financial abundance.

When we write and rewrite procedure manuals, learn new techniques, and go to evidence-based continuing-education meetings, we continue to feed our left brains. But is that all there is?

While acknowledging that left-brain thinking has brought us exceptional educations, systematic clinical skills, and financial foundations, we find ourselves reassessing the quality of our relationships (“other people matter“), our physical wellness (exercise, eating, weight, sleep, self-care), our emotions (to thrive, we need to be emotionally intelligent, resilient, and cultivate just the right balance of positive to negative emotions), our strengths (engagement in life depends on developing and using our talents and strengths at home, work, and in relationships), and meaning (our visions, values, and higher purpose in service to others, along with peak performance and accomplishments, make life worth living).

In other words, the right-brain stuff.

Right brain

The right brain is the creative part of us. It sees the forest rather than the trees. It loves art and understands human emotions. It is intuitive. The right brain is the source that comes into play when we create exceptional margins, brilliant esthetic smiles, or partner with a patient who agrees to quit smoking. It pursues connection and higher values.

It moves you from a “drill and fill“ practice philosophy to a whole patient–caring mentality. The right brain creates an overall sense of well-being, and connects the oral and systemic evidence that is relevant within your clinical services to patient communication and education. Once discredited as “touchy-feely,“ these abilities are now in high demand.

Daniel Pink, influential author of the bestseller “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,“ predicts right-brain skills will be the driving force shaping our future economy. What scientific foundational principles will these new skills fall under? Positive psychology and building on strengths.

Positive leadership

Positive psychology is far more that “happiology.“ Most of us were introduced to the topic in college through Abraham Maslow, who in addition to writing about the “hierarchy of needs“ (“the“ theory of motivation) — also wrote about peak experiences, existential growth, and the importance of building on personal resources for success in life. What's unique about positive psychology is not just the scientific foundation, but the application of its theories to dentistry.

As our profession continues to evolve with research, prevention assessments, interventions, minimally invasive dentistry, lifestyle-behavior modalities, and partnering with medical professions, the thought leaders of psychology are also making strides to move their profession upward.

In 1999, the American Psychological Association's incoming president, Dr. Martin Seligman, realized that his profession focused solely on pathology, damage, and mental illness. He asked, “What about the many things that go right with people — what about human flourishing?“ Seligman and his colleagues founded a new branch of psychology called “positive psychology,“ an empirically based science researching human strengths and potential.

Happiness and its relevance

Optimism and positive psychology are not just “feel-good“ strategies. In 2005, the late Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, stated, “Gallup uses positive psychology because it works. If data showed that yelling at my employee was more effective, then I would do that instead.“ Under his leadership, Gallup used positive psychology to create happier, harder working, and increasingly loyal employees, while boosting the number of satisfied customers at the same time. When Clifton was alive, he also summarized the concept that “we live at a time when competitive distance between companies is very narrow. Anything that gives us a business edge will translate into important tangible gains in the marketplace.“ Positive psychology is one such edge.

While the words happiness or positive emotions may be uncomfortable for some or seem like a foreign topic to dentists, a review of scientific findings (left brain) from positive psychology research may speak for itself.

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues from the University of California-Riverside, happy people:

  • Make more money
  • Are less likely to burn out
  • Experience higher job satisfaction, which correlates to staying on the job longer
  • Get along with their colleagues/customers better
  • Receive better supervisory and peer evaluations on the job
  • Are rated more highly by their customers
  • Are more likely to help out at work, even on tasks that are unrelated to their jobs
  • Are less likely to be absent or quit

Imagine the benefits of these findings, their relevance, and contribution to our dental practices and teams.

This article acknowledges and upholds the many tools based on left- brain thinking that have, can, and will continue to organize and systemize dental practices.

Yet, to continue to flourish, my premise is that learning how to incorporate the sciences and relevant psychological research behind the positive revolution will build and broaden the availability of resources for our practices and schools — learning to profit from the positive!

Now for the results of Gallup's study.

The more than 10,000 employees surveyed came up with a clear answer. The most influential leaders of their lives were those who built trust, stability, compassion, and hope. They were the right-brain oriented ones.

Kristine Hodsdon, RDH, BS, is a practicing hygienist, consultant, speaker, and author. She is the director of RDH eVillage, a monthly electronic hygiene newsletter sponsored by PennWell® Publishing. Visit her Web site at

Action Steps for Positive Teams

1) PIA Patients —The mere sight of their names on the schedule elevates your blood pressure. One way to deal with this dilemma is to focus on your patient's strengths. The day or week before the appointment, spend a few minutes thinking about and writing down a list of things you really like about him or her — admirable qualities. Place this information in the chart or input it into the computer. Then, before each appointment, review the list and remind yourself what is so great about this patient.

2) Laughter — Find more ways to bring humor into your office. Use quotes, tapes, jokes, or funny stories of the day, encouraging the office “funny guy or gal“ to shine. Play a funny movie during lunch. All of these activities translate into increased positive feelings. Research suggests that happiness as measured by personal well-being is a better predictor of performance at work than job satisfaction.

3) Morning Huddles — Review the positives of the previous day. Ask “What really worked yesterday?“ and “What is going right for us now?“ or “What is going to make this day great for ourselves and our patients?“ Research shows that building on strengths and the positive is more effective than trying to improve weaknesses.

3) 3-1 Positivity to Negativity Ratio — Positivity and negativity are powerful feedback processes in human behavior. Research shows that it takes three positive feedbacks to counter every negative feedback. Positive feedback is key to employees flourishing versus languishing in work relationships. Additional relationship research has found that high performing teams exceed the positive/negative range of 3:1.

P.S. Don't forget about 3:1 during patient appointments, communication, and educational opportunities.

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