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Creating a complaint-free dental practice

June 9, 2023
You should not be constantly bombarded with complaining staff members. Here's how to work with them so they become solvers, not victims.

Does this sound like your lunch break? You have 10 minutes to gobble down a sandwich, return emails, and review patient notes. As you keep a desperate eye on the clock, a group of disgruntled team members stumbles into your office. They each have a complaint about someone else. The employees who aren’t complaining about other employees complain about patients, dated technology, or a broken system. They dump their complaints on you because they think it’s your job to solve their issues and make them happy.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could stop being the problem solver and eat your lunch in peace? I’ll examine how to get employees to take ownership in resolving their own issues. I’ll share two phrases that can change your life, and a game you can play with your team to establish a new norm.

Complaints and victimhood

Why do employees prefer complaining to you versus solving their own problems? When we complain, we see ourselves as hapless victims of circumstances (the patient was late, the website went down) or nefarious coworkers (she has a bad attitude and dumps her job on me). Unfortunately, there’s a perverse currency and power in presenting yourself as a victim. Victims typically receive sympathy and understanding. If you’re a victim, you can’t be blamed for a failure or be expected to remedy the situation.

A complaint is an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying you’re dissatisfied. In fact, this can be important feedback. Troubles begin when the complaint does not come with ownership and when it’s used as a weapon.

When an employee complains and invokes victim status, they expect decisive action to rescue them and punishment for the accused. Sadly, this is more reminiscent of a parent/child relationship than adult communication, and it’s why you may have a line of aggrieved employees at your door.

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Personal ownership

Let’s contrast victim mentality with an ownership mindset. With an ownership mindset, you recognize that while external events may negatively affect you, you still own the results and you’re responsible for your reaction and response. Employees who take ownership have a “buck stops with me” attitude. When there’s a problem, they acknowledge it, look for ways to prevent it from reoccurring, minimize the consequences, and work to solve it.

Here's an example of how these two approaches play out with a hygienist who constantly goes past her scheduled time with patients, creating a backlog and customer service issues.

The complaint/victim mentality: “I can’t help it. My patients talk a lot, and they ask me questions when you leave the room because you weren’t clear. You tell me to sell dentistry and that’s what I’m doing. My prophys take twice as long because my instruments are so old. I’ve asked you to get me new ones, but you haven’t listened. You don’t support me and now you’re yelling at me for trying to do my job.”

The ownership mentality: “I recognize that I spend more time with patients than I anticipated and it’s causing problems for the practice. I need to change this, and I’ve thought of a couple of things we can do differently. I’d like to strategize about how to manage the periodic exam so patients’ questions are answered while you’re in the room. I’d also like to get your input on how I can best use our instruments and technology so that I can be thorough but quicker.”

You can see that the hygienist with the victim mentality blames external forces for the problem. The ownership-oriented hygienist uses more “I” words and acknowledges the issues affecting performance without attributing blame. Their focus is on joint problem solving. You may be wondering, “How do I get my employees to change their complaint mindset to an ownership mindset?”

Contribution and ownership

If you want employees to move past victim language, you need to introduce two new terms. The first is contribution, which means acknowledging that you had a part in creating or sustaining a problem. When an employee brings you a complaint, your response can be: “That does sound frustrating. What do you think your role has been, even unconsciously, in creating this problem or allowing it to continue?”

Perhaps the employee will see they were unclear, judgmental, or impatient. Even if an employee insists that someone else is 80% at fault, they did contribute 20%, and that’s their responsibility to change.

Once an employee realizes that they had a role, even a small part, in the situation, introduce a phrase that engenders ownership and contribution: “I didn’t anticipate that, so now I will…”

This phrase avoids the blame/complaint dynamic and focuses on what the employee needs to do differently to get a better result. It creates a commitment to new behavior.

  • I didn’t anticipate that traffic would be so bad, so now I’ll leave earlier.
  • I didn’t anticipate that insurance verification calls would take so long, so now I’ll do admin work while I’m on hold.
  • I didn’t anticipate that the assistant would resent sterilizing my instruments, so now I will do them myself.

This can change the dynamic of your practice.

The complaint challenge

Your team may need training on how to adapt an ownership mindset, which is what I’ve been doing with several teams lately. You can introduce the topic with a fun challenge. Simply wear a rubber purple bracelet on the same wrist for 21 days. Any time you complain, you transfer your bracelet to your other wrist and start over. I’ve never lasted more than two days. I maintained that I wasn’t complaining, I was “observing,” but of course, I was also being less than honest.

Here’s to a complaint-free dental practice

Remember that change can be hard. Your employees may sincerely want to change, but they may need additional training, support, or resources to do so. That’s why conversations about performance need to be dialogues and not monologues. I’ve compiled a series of articles about how to communicate with your team that I’m happy to share. Contact me at [email protected] and I’ll send you those resources.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the June 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

About the Author

Sharyn Weiss, MA

Sharyn Weiss, MA, is the CEO at Weiss Practice Enhancement, a Bay Area practice management firm serving dentists nationwide. She has worked with hundreds of dentists during the last 20 years with a focus on patient and team motivation. Her mission is to help dentists become confident leaders of a profitable practice. If that’s your goal too, contact Weiss at [email protected] or weisspractice.com.

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