Tips for leaders and their teams

June 15, 2019
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The ideal functioning of a dental practice is similar to that of an orchestra. It is essential that the manager, scheduling coordinators, clinical supervisor, and clinical assisting staff coordinate their work so that all operations are harmonious and orderly. Each person should experience joy in utilizing the skills they possess. Consequently, this makes the overall atmosphere of the office genuinely pleasant.

Much like the musicians in an orchestra play different instruments, the members of a dental team possess diverse skills. To produce an aria, the musicians work with timing and cohesion as they follow the baton of the conductor. Delivering excellent patient care requires mirroring the same principle. Members of a dental team must operate in coordination with each other and follow the instructions of team leaders. Since human beings are largely creatures of the heart, when our heart is in something, it’s evident in the outcome.

We know that genetic makeup determines the inherent abilities of a person. Environmental factors play a great role in deciding whether or not a person can successfully realize their potential. Both genetic makeup and environment also shape the personality. It is desirable that team leaders and team members always bear this in mind. Recognizing these differences helps the team to appreciate the diversity.

The creation of a team that is competent, reliable, responsible, effective, enthusiastic and pleasant begins with the hiring process. Prospective employees are hired based on their experience, attitude, receptivity and eagerness to learn and grow in the field. Personality tests can be conducted to judge some of these parameters. Another form of assessment is a “working interview.” A potential employee works for a few days with the existing team, so the employer can decide if the employee and the existing team are suitable for each other.

Even when the hiring process is conducted with due diligence, it is a continuing challenge to inspire a group of people to remain actively engaged toward a common goal. Employees may leave a dental office due to personal circumstances or due to job related issues. Escaping an environment of discord is one of the most common job-related reasons people seek employment alternatives. Conflict, lack of cooperation, and absence of mutual trust are characteristics of a dysfunctional team.

Losing employees because of a poorly managed team must be avoided as this hampers the smooth functioning of the practice, which interferes with patient care and decreases productivity. A good team dynamic is a function of inspired leadership and hardworking, invested employees.

In our practice, we have had a good measure of success in retaining our employees and also maintaining good teams. There have been times that were challenging and others that were excruciating, but we have had smooth sailing for the most part.

The following three key points are suggested for leaders to maintain a good team:

  1. Equanimity and exuberance – An equanimous mind and an exuberant heart – every practice owner or leader must ensure that they go to work with this, unfailingly. Clinical days for any dental office often times can be a moving target. All of us experience emergencies with patients or the last-minute absence of a staff member. When I first graduated, this was sufficient to raise my stress level, which was faithfully followed by a signature grumpy disposition and a mood to match. This is an exercise in waste and is not something leaders should permit of themselves. If I am informed that I will be understaffed, or notice difficult patients on my schedule, I have an internal conversation with myself.

    1. I have to get through this day. I can either be upset, stressed, and a nuisance to others, or I can be pleasant, understanding and elegant. Today, I can be that wonderful doctor that remains unfazed to my patients and pitches in more when understaffed. The latter choice always wins.
    2. A functioning dental office is nothing short of a Broadway production. If you are able to gain some internal distance from the buzz of activity around you, it is rather simple to see this. When the norm for a day is changed or disturbed I tell myself, “it is a different play today.” This helps me maintain a calm composure.

    Equanimity and exuberance are key to problem solving and managing an unexpected situation. They also give us mental space to be able to plan, act and grow. Last but not least, when leaders model this behavior, staff is likely to follow suit.

  2. Social Engineering – Every business owner has an opportunity and responsibility to contribute to social engineering in a meaningful way. This can be done by extending guidance, financial support or affording time to an employee who is aspiring towards a more lucrative career, even if it is outside of the practice. To share a couple of examples: the daughter of our clinical supervisor worked as a chairside assistant for us in the past, and she is a practicing dentist today. Another former assistant is in a nursing program at a magnet hospital. Many practice employers shy away from aiding ambitious employees. They may believe that this does not align with practice goals or it is disruptive to the office dynamic. On the contrary, we have found supporting the pursuits of our employees yielded incredible good will, and they remained ardent ambassadors of our practice.
  3. Optimal Repetition – “We are only as good as our last performance” is a phrase often used both by theatre artists and by athletes. To ensure that each performance is memorable, production ensembles rehearse over and over again. In the absence of an audience they hone their act. In the same way, each practice needs protected time with no patients scheduled, to revise and improve systems. This can range from how a new patient call is handled to the checklist involved for a certain type of clinical procedure or billing systems.

    Optimal repetition works in three ways:

    1. The team has an opportunity to recognize tasks that they are doing extremely well. This increases their confidence and also instills a sense of pride in them about their work.
    2. It serves as a reminder of details that tend to get overlooked while performing any task.
    3. It is an opportunity for team leaders and the team to gain feedback from each other. This feedback can then be utilized to improve ease of working and efficiency of the office.

An Argentine Tango instructor I know, Pamela Slavsky says, “There is no leadership or followership, but a partnership.” The team members are as important to the success of a practice as the team leaders and practice owners.

The following are suggestions for team members:

  1. Compassion – No successful human interaction can happen without compassion of the parties involved towards each other. The need for compassion and being compassionate links all human beings. It is easy to lose sight of this while filling logs or going over daily checklists. Of all the people who have worked with me, not one ever lacked compassion towards patients; however, on occasion there were a few who did not extend the same grace towards their colleagues. Compassion allows us to appreciate that people have different personal circumstances, and that each one faces unique challenges outside of the office. Indra Nooyi, the Chairman and CEO of Pepsi Co shares the best advise her father gave her: “Assume positive intent.” Compassion allows us to trust the positive intent of the other person towards us.
  2. No Comparisons – Comparisons are rife in dysfunctional teams. Comparisons happen when team members begin to expect others to do exactly what they are doing or to behave in the exact same manner. Comparisons carry the inherent risk of overestimating our own contributions to the office and discounting the efforts of our colleagues. A Harvard Business Review paper presented five personality categories that exist in teams – result oriented, relationship builders, process and rule followers, innovative thinkers and disrupters, and pragmatic. A balance of these personalities resulted in optimal team functioning. If the team group was heavy on any one personality type, it was likely to fail.

    Building a house takes, brick, cement, stone and wood. A complete and beautiful structure must have a sound foundation, good floor plans, a beautiful façade and must be well constructed. The materials and features are not interchangeable, and yet each one is necessary. The same is true for different team members.

    Comparisons also rob us of the ability to examine our own needs, wishes and goals in a thoughtful fashion. One cannot drive ahead or accelerate to get ahead on their path if their neck is constantly craning to see the car in the next lane.
  3. Accepting Team Hierarchy – A frequently observed bone of contention in teams is the acceptance of team hierarchy. Teams typically have managers, clinical supervisors, scheduling coordinators, lead assistants, the clinical assisting staff etc. A hierarchy is essential to maintain accountability, organization and a distribution of responsibility. Without a hierarchy, day to day functioning of a practice can descend into chaos. Often times, team members find it difficult to accept this hierarchy because accountability can be uncomfortable. If a person desires a position, it is imperative that he or she is capable and willing to assume the responsibilities involved.

    Many employees aspire for leadership roles, without realizing that they are very challenging, as they usually involve an increased workload and increased accountability. Employees who hold these positions are more liable if things go awry, and no one is interested in hearing their excuses. It is a misconception to assume that a leadership role permits the exercising of power over others. While leadership jobs often appear to be cushy and tempting, in reality they are demanding. So, much like an orchestra, a dental office needs each player in their role in order to function harmoniously.

    As Henry Ford said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”


About Dr. Parul Taneja

Dr. Parul Taneja is an orthodontist who has been in private practice in the Greater Boston Area for the last fifteen years. She received her Doctorate of Dental Medicine from Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, and her graduate degree in orthodontics is from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. A protégé of Dr. Nanda, a legendary figure in the field of orthodontics, she also received a Master of Science degree in Oral Biology at the University of Oklahoma. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Dental Sciences, and guest lectures at the pre-doctoral orthodontic program at the Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine. She has several publications in peer reviewed journals, and has also contributed the chapter on interdisciplinary care in the textbook Orthodontics – Diagnosis and Management of Malocclusion and Dentofacial Deformities published by Elsevier. In 2010, the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) awarded her with the Ten under Ten Award. The award honors dentists who, within the first ten years of practice, have made significant contributions in the field of dentistry. She is an advisor to NCase – the first orthodontic company that manufactures smart cases that track, and improve compliance with appliances like orthodontic aligners and retainers. Her other passions include writing, running, swimming and dancing the Argentine tango.