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Aristotle, DDS

March 1, 2007
How would Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, manage today’s dental practice?
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How would Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, manage today’s dental practice?

by Linda V. Zdanowicz, CDA, CDPMA

Dentistry is an interesting, complicated profession. Dental personnel work in such an intimate part of the body - the mouth. It’s so personal. Yet, how often do we forget to forge a relationship with the person attached to that mouth? Dentists and staff work so closely together and share the common goal of improving the oral health of their patients, but what else do they share? Do they share a common philosophy? Would that turn a job into a vocation? How does a dentist become concerned about the entire patient, not just his or her mouth? How would Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, manage today’s dental practice?

When I started managing the practice I work in, my boss gave me a copy of Tom Morris’ book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors. My first reaction was dread. I love to read, but this sounded like a book about cars. I was wrong. It was a book that changed how I live and how I look at life. The bonus is that Tom has become my friend and mentor. He’s given me permission to use the material in his books and apply it to dental practices.

So, let’s think about how Aristotle, DDS, would manage a dental practice. What would he do to make your practice stand out from every other practice in town? What would make your patients say, “Those people are really different; they care!”? What would make your staff forget about whose job it is to do something, who gets the credit, and who makes more money? What would make them just see a need and jump in to fill it? What makes a job evolve into a vocation?

Dentists are trained to perform dentistry. They’re logical and methodical. They see minute details and spend years learning every millimeter of every tooth. But what about the person attached to those teeth? What about the people who work with the dentist? What about the dentist him/herself? Have you ever thought about the “soul” of it all? I’m talking about the soul of the practice, the thing that makes people care. The soul is the matrix of all the good work that we do. The soul contains our intentions. Do you remember how noble your intentions were when you started out? The soul forms those intentions into a reality that becomes the treatment we offer our patients. If the soul is healthy and well formed, the treatment will be exceptional. Without soul, our work is just the janitorial maintenance of a bunch of teeth. Our practice becomes a molar factory, an incisor assembly line.

If Aristotle Ran General Motors centers around the four foundations of human excellence: truth, unity, goodness, and beauty.

The first is truth. The truth is so very important to human beings. If we sense a lack of truth, we will work tirelessly to unearth it. In the dental office, truth is the rock on which everything we do is built. When we tell co-workers the truth about how we feel about what we are doing together, we are showing them respect. We are saying that we think they are intelligent enough and rational enough to accept the truth as we see it. We believe that they will respond honestly and rationally. We speak our truth with compassion and sensitivity. When they respond, we accept their truth, also, without judgment. We work together to find solutions and form relationships. When this happens, the truth will thrive. When it doesn’t, the truth will go underground and problems will arise. Gossip will fester, and the focus will shift. The patients, who should be our focus, will sense the shift and feel the tension. Rather than soothing our patients with a peaceful, caring atmosphere, we will be creating apprehension with a feeling of discord in the office.

When a dentist tells a staff member the truth about his or her performance, the dentist is saying, “I believe in your potential. I know you are ready to increase your ability.” When the truth is told in an environment centered in trust, the meaning behind the words is understood. When it is told in a place of mistrust, the meaning is suspect and will be dissected and analyzed into an insult. When staff members can tell the dentist the truth as they see it and can trust that they will be heard without judgment and responded to in truth, they will move forward effectively.

When the dentist and staff treat their patients truthfully, they tell them what they need to know without judging them. By that I mean they do not decide that “this person would not be interested in implants, so I will suggest a partial denture.” Instead, they give patients the information they need to make an educated decision without predetermining their ability to pay or their desire for optimal care.

An important element of truth is the delivery method. If truth is used as a weapon, it is as ugly and worthless as a lie. When it is spoken with care, it is as vital as water, food, and oxygen. You empower your employees and patients when you tell them the truth. People who want to work in harmony together will not be dishonest. When a staff member teaches a co-worker how to do something and shows him everything she knows about it, she is working in truth. When she leaves out things that make the job easier or that will make the co-worker more efficient, she is working in selfishness, dishonesty, and distrust. She does not trust the culture of the office. She fears that by sharing all, she will give away what makes her special. She misses the fact that by helping someone else excel, she, in turn, becomes extraordinary.

If truth is the foundation of the practice, then unity is the backbone. Anything unified stands taller and stronger than that which is fragmented. There are many ways a dental practice can be fragmented. The dentist may say, “I am the boss; there is no one above me.” The hygienist may say, “I am the person from whom production flows; I am important.” The assistant may say, “I am the right hand of the dentist; without me it would all fall apart.” The receptionist may say, “I am the face of the practice; I make this place what it is.” They are all right, in a small way. They are all wrong, in a big way. They are wrong because they are focusing on self. They are worrying about recognition. They are lacking in generosity. They are forgetting why they are there. The most important person in the dental practice is watching - the patient. When the patient sees a group that works together for his or her best interests, the patient wants to come back and wants friends and family to go there too. People like to find a “good thing.” When they do, they want to share it so everyone can admire their good sense.

When people work together in unity, there is greater satisfaction. More is accomplished when energy is combined and sent in the same direction. When everyone acknowledges the importance of each person in each job, everyone performs better. The mood in the office is lighter and kinder. Before long, you forget whether you are the giver or the receiver; you just know you feel good. That connection with another does not give rise to dependency; rather, it gives birth to dependability. You can depend on your staff, they can depend on you and each other, and your patients know they can depend on all of you to give them the best care possible.

When the culture of a practice includes truth and unity, it becomes a place of simple goodness. It is a place where indifference becomes replaced by commitment, where rudeness is an abomination and kindness and care come naturally. Why is that important? It is important because our patients place themselves in our hands. They make themselves vulnerable to us. We have a responsibility to live up to their trust. I’ve heard people say, “It’s dentistry, not brain surgery!” Maybe so, but when you are undergoing brain surgery, you are most likely sedated. When you are undergoing a dental procedure, you are most likely not only alert, but your senses are probably heightened. You want people on either side of you who care - people who exude goodness.

Goodness is guided by ethics and morality. I have found that those two words are intriguing to those who are good, and reviling to those who are not. They inspire interest or resentment in turn. When the actions of a group are based on what is good for the group and for the patient, the group does well, as do the individuals. When making decisions for action, ask yourself what you hope to achieve. Then ask yourself if anyone will be hurt by your action. Finally, ask yourself how you would feel if you were the person being affected by your action. That is how you will know how to proceed in goodness.

The last foundation is beauty. The esthetic element of beauty can change the way patients feel about themselves and, in turn, can change their lives. We’ve all seen patients who come into the office and smile behind closed lips or cover their mouth with their hand. They live in shame of their smiles. A person’s smile is an essential part of him or her. Joy is spread through an unrestrained smile. A plain person can be transformed by his or her smile. People are drawn to people who are joyous. When you give people back their smiles, you return to them a part of the life they thought they had lost. It is beautiful to watch someone regain confidence and face life free of the hand that hid his or her shame. The good feeling you have in seeing that happen is what it’s all about.

It’s beautiful to witness, and even better to be a part of, a group of people who work together in truth, unity, and goodness. As Tom Morris says, “Relationships rule the world.” We may not be able to control the global relationships that are ruling the world at large right now, but we can influence the relationships that we are a part of in our smaller world at work. We can show concern for others. We can increase our potential by helping others increase theirs. When you have a healthy culture in your practice, it can be felt by everyone. The same is true for an unhealthy environment.

We need to value each other and acknowledge the efforts of all. If we do this, we eliminate the reason for jealousy, indifference, gossip, and cruelty. Those negative elements can’t thrive in a noble soul. We must understand that we are more alike than we are different. We are all striving to have the life we want. We are all surviving our disappointments and hurts. We want to do and be good. We will all thrive when we do away with animosity and create an atmosphere of acceptance. It is the need we have in common. It unites us. It makes us good. It is truly beautiful to be a part of. That’s what a practice with a noble soul looks like.

Editor’s note: Zdanowicz also has an article that benefits your entire team in the current issue of Dental Office, which accompanied this issue of Dental Economics®.

Linda V. Zdanowicz, CDA, CDPMA, has been a dental assistant for 16 years and a practice administrator for 2.5 years. She has experience in general dentistry, periodontics, endodontics, and orthodontics. She has worked for Dr. Jeffery Price for 7.5 years as his primary chairside assistant, practice administrator, and patient care coordinator. Her Weblog at is dedicated to enhancing dentistry for dentists, auxiliaries, and patients. She lives and works in Hendersonville, N.C. You may contact her at [email protected].

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