Barriers in dental team building: What are the on-the-job expectations?

Sarah Lawrence, RDH, states that communication breakdowns among dental team members are the biggest barriers in team building.

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If you’re a dental professional who has been in the workforce for any length of time, you have more than likely come across issues in communication, leadership, and motivation. Not only can issues arise in the professional world but also in our social circles—conflict is a part of life. However, having barriers in the dental office can have disastrous consequences not only for the profitability of the office but also for the morale. When there is a breakdown in communication or an issue that arises, it’s important to know how to get a handle on the situation before the problems become larger and harder to manage.

Here are a few things to consider when trying to bring a dental team together.

Setting clear expectations

What is required of me? How can I achieve this? These are common questions that an employee will have when starting at a new dental office. It's important to set the tone as quickly as possible when an employee is hired. It provides the basic framework that employees are searching for while trying to learn their place in a new environment.

Most new employees are wanting to please their employer and colleagues, but how can they do this if they don't know what is expected of them? It’s imperative to provide resources and an action plan to get from the beginning of an idea to the end result. Provide leadership and direction without too much pressure. Create “soft” deadlines to keep employees motivated and on track but not too much pressure that it feels like you are micromanaging.

Being vulnerable and professional

As a leader of the dental team, letting your employers or coworkers know that you have your own areas of weakness makes you more relatable and easier to connect with. If a colleague can sense that you are open to change and willing to continue to improve in your own professional role, there is a higher level of respect that is given to you from the employee.

One idea might be to provide personal examples of how you have made your own mistakes and what you did to correct them. It’s not necessary to go into great detail about past mistakes or the circumstances surrounding them. However, it does show your employees that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as they are learning from them and looking for ways to always improve.

Employees look to their manager, dentist, or any “leader” to help them along their journey. Letting them know you have had your own issues to overcome in your professional role can help create a sense of camaraderie. It’s important to let employees know that you are open to any suggestions they might have to help create a stronger team.

Having a "know-it-all" attitude is one of the worst traits that any staff member can have. It instantly creates barriers and shuts down any constructive conversation that needs to take place in order for the team to thrive. Having a leader who is not approachable will not provide the open dialogue needed to create a strong dental team.

It's crucial to remain professional and neutral at all times. Don’t tell colleagues things such as “I really shouldn’t be telling you this,” “Don’t tell her I said this, but…” These conversations will break down the trust that colleagues have for you. The staff member will likely think, “If you’re telling this to me, chances are you are saying this about me.”

Exploring individual strengths

It’s important to remember that each team member is good at something, and each person has their own set of strengths. Consider the reason he or she was hired in the first place. Was it a bubbly personality? Great attention to detail? Or a skill in easily connecting with patients?

When possible, placing employees in a position that will highlight their strengths will increase their confidence and will produce a more pleasant work environment. When employees excel at their job, they often will receive more praise. They, in turn, feel more appreciated. When they feel like they are making a difference, they are willing to work harder to get things done. Never underestimate the value of the words “I appreciate you.”

Creating unnecessary titles

Assigning unnecessary labels or “titles” within departments can create a sense of competition. Sometimes it’s completely necessary to have certain people assigned to be the “leaders” to keep things flowing. However, having a team of dental hygienists with virtually the same duties but having someone labeled “Team Leader” with virtually no additional duties, has the potential to create issues.

Resentment starts to brew and feelings can be hurt. For example, people might start to say things such as “Why don’t you have Jessica do it? She is the team leader now.” “It’s not my job now, it’s Jessica’s job.”

All of sudden, people will start to highlight the weakness of the person with the new title and will start to look for all of the ways they are failing in their new role. Is it slightly unprofessional for people to be upset about this? Possibly. But that doesn’t that mean that it doesn’t happen. Emotions start to run high when people feel like they don’t matter to the team. Every team member wants to feel like they contribute equally and wants feel like they play a role the success of the office.

If your office is looking to implement a “team leader,” be sure to set clear expectations and be completely transparent about this person’s roles and responsibilities right from the beginning. If the role of the team leader is to provide some sort of leadership, be sure to have the employee well-prepared on how to handle their new responsibilities. Creating a new role for the employee with limited guidance or direction on how to be successful, will only create more frustration.

One of the most important things to remember is to not let small problems build into larger ones. Not addressing issues when they are small causes employees to speculate and to make up their own narrative—whether it’s true or not. Many issues are resolved by providing details that the other party wasn’t aware of. By simply communicating expectations, providing gentle guidance, and showing appreciation, many disagreements can be avoided.

Sarah Lawrence, RDH, has been a clinical dental hygienist for over 10 years. She currently works at a pediatric dental office and is also a clinical representative for Young Dental. In addition to dental hygiene, she practices orofacial myology one day a week. Her interests include researching, writing, and speaking. She can be reached via e-mail: sarahlawrencerdh@gmail.com.

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