Avoiding the toxic workplace: How dental hygienists can be empowered by coworkers

What causes one workplace to thrive and another to be toxic? It’s all about how coworkers—at all levels—treat one another.

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It will come as no surprise to you that in the 23 years I’ve worked as a dental hygienist, most of my coworkers have been, and still are, women. I’ve encountered teams that run like clockwork, and teams that are like cheap alarm clocks that constantly blink 12:00 and are just plain stuck.

What causes one workplace to thrive and another to be toxic? It’s all about how coworkers—at all levels—treat one another. We all know the stereotype: Women cannot work together without being catty, judgmental, and vindictive. Well, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I worked in dental practices with women older than I was (they were the age I am now). I’m tall, thin, and blond. That’s what I look like, but that’s not all of who I am. My coworkers would often remark on my age, looks, and weight. It seemed to be all they were concerned with. They never saw I was smart, hard-working, and kind. Don't get me wrong: now that I’m in my 40s with a few wrinkles and a gray hair or two, I sometimes miss the younger me. Then I think about everything I’ve done in the years since way back then—my experiences, the knowledge gained, the people I’ve met and learned from—and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

While it’s human nature to notice how someone looks and even make judgments based on appearances, I challenge you to go past that. When you notice you’re doing it, stop and take a closer look at yourself. Ask why you feel this way. Maybe you associate that person with someone you’ve had a bad experience with before. Finding the root of your feelings is important in preventing snap judgments from happening over and over. Once you become more aware, you will be able to easily see people as they are on the inside.

In addition, when we feel threatened or insecure, that can cause us to lash out at other women. You know, as I reflect on the past, I’m actually glad those women were mean to me by only commenting on my looks. That pushed me to understand their behavior. I became a better, more aware person. Next time you feel insecure or threatened, try to look for the good in the person. Find something you like about her and share that with her. Being female is about being strong, caring and loving one another.

I have always tried to go beyond a person’s outward appearance and look for the value of that person’s gifts instead. When you stretch that advice to the entire workplace, you can help create and maintain a positive work environment and avoid a toxic one.

Two women researchers who study workplace culture found that empowerment is extremely important in positive work environments. See if this sounds like a place where you’d like to work:

  • Coworkers genuinely care for one another.
  • When someone is struggling, coworkers rally around her with support, kindness, and compassion.
  • Finger-pointing and blame are replaced by forgiveness and understanding.
  • People treat one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

This kind of work atmosphere, especially when the manager sets the positive tone, inspires loyalty, commitment, and even strong performance. Your practice becomes more than a great place to work—it becomes a place where patients are valued and feel confident in the care they receive.

Compare that to a toxic work environment:

  • Employees are not happy, and they view everything negatively. They often gather to complain.
  • Gossip is rampant, mostly about managers, and negative employees feed off each other.
  • “Real” communication (not the complaining and gossiping) is awful, sometimes even nonexistent.
  • People are not motivated to succeed because they don’t get guidance, encouragement, or respect.
  • No one is asked to contribute ideas or use their unique skills; everyone’s a cog in the machine.
  • Employees become discouraged, which can make some people irritable, and give others anxiety. Nobody wants to come to work.

Does that sound like a place where you’d want to be? I certainly don’t. But toxic environments aren’t doomed; they can get back on track. It just takes work. How? First, managers can include important traits (e.g., showing respect, giving encouragement, helping others) in performance expectations. Go on record with which behaviors you want to see in employees and reward them for it. Managers can also let workers help make decisions by giving them access to data and/or asking their opinions and expertise.

Great leaders get everything out in the open. If issues exist, talk about them in a safe atmosphere, not a complaint-fest, and share ideas on making things better. We call it “clearing the air.” At my office, my team and I start with a list of facts and emotion. Then, we can work on our issues in a healthy, constructive way. Always wrap up the conversation with at least the start of a good plan to get on a better path.

If your practice doesn’t have a lot of trust, it will be hard to get started. So, building trust and a safe environment is a must for a healthy team. My motto is simple: “Look for the good.” Resist the temptation to criticize and judge. Look for your coworkers’ gifts, and think about your own gifts, too. What uniqueness do all of you have that could contribute to a dynamic workplace?

Think about it this way: in our industry, we work with other women constantly. Instead of tearing each other down based on snap judgments, we should learn to raise each other up. We have to be kind and support each other. We are stronger together—we should never let toxic behavior get in the way of what we are here to do as humans.


Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.


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Tonya Lanthier, RDH, CEO of DentalPost, lives in Atlanta where her passion revolves around using her innovative platform to help improve the lives of others. DentalPost is an online and mobile platform that helps dental professionals and practices connect.

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