Driving success through innovative compensation models

June 10, 2009
Create a culture in which team members are encouraged to grow, are trained to new levels of performance, and are valued and rewarded for their contributions.

by Amy Morgan, CEO, Pride Institute

Without question, your practice's productivity and profitability depend on your team's motivation to do the right things at the right time. But even as the leader of the practice, you cannot force or beg employees to be motivated (many have tried; all have failed). You can, however, create a culture in which team members are encouraged to grow, are trained to new levels of performance, and are valued and rewarded for their contributions. The first step in creating this new environment is by linking motivation and compensation.

Compensation is one of the most complicated, misunderstood, and emotionally charged topics in the dental practice. When implemented effectively, the good news is that compensation can be the catalyst for an individual's personal and professional growth, as well as the inspiration to enhance motivation, morale, and performance.

The bad news is that when the compensation system is ineffective, it magnifies personal issues such as respect, self-worth, and validation and can create conflict, low morale, and poor performance. As a result, many dentists approach this operating system powered by guilt, confusion, fear, and dread.

There are four guiding principles that, if followed, can take away all of the stress and upset that is generated by poor compensation and motivation models:

Every component of compensation is essential
Compensation includes all the ways an employee is rewarded and recognized at work. This includes wages, benefits, rewards, and incentives. It also includes intrinsic rewards like, "am I valued?" or "can I grow personally and professionally?" or "am I challenged?" Another question is "Do I get feedback and acknowledgement?" Too frequently, dentists consider that a "silver-bullet mentality" that focuses only on wage and reward to be successful. So, the dentist complains, "Well, I gave her a cost of living increase and took my team on a cruise — why isn't she happy?" The answer is that every component of compensation is essential and must be in alignment. We all know that you can reward an unhappy employee with a day at the spa, but if she hasn't had a wage increase in three years or feels underappreciated, don't expect a motivational miracle!

Individual performance counts
For any aspect of compensation to be motivational, it must be based on individual demonstrated skills, abilities, and outcomes. If all your team members always get the same compensation opportunities, then the presumption is they have all performed at the same level. Uniform incentive plans and uniform wage increases only acknowledge the median — your average employees. You forfeit the opportunity to coach the underperformer and celebrate the high achiever when everyone is paid the same. When you only acknowledge average performances, guess what you can expect in the future? More of the same!
A bonus system based on monthly collections could be working for you.

However, if you have a dental assistant who doesn't understand her role in supporting collections or hasn't been on top of her game — and she receives the same amount as the financial coordinator who continuously goes above and beyond — well Houston, you've got problems!

Pay for the job — reward for the effort
Although financial remuneration plays an important role in helping people feel valued and recognized, it is not the sole predictor of a team member's motivation. Don't get me wrong, a poorly paid employee who can't pay the electric bill is not going to rise up to new levels of success. The base wage for any staff member can and should meet his or her foundational financial needs.

A wage is what you give people to do the job they are hired to do. It is based on the scope of duties and the level of responsibility of the job description. For the wage to be competitive for your area, the dentist needs to be aware of what other practices are paying for the same skill set. Self-worth is generated when an employee knows he or she is being compensated fairly for the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they bring to the practice. Then, reward and recognition can then be utilized separately to celebrate individual efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

Avoid the "carrot and the stick"
Self-motivated employees independently adjust their performance to meet their own high standards. A common mistake is to try to motivate based on what we call the "carrot-to-stick continuum" The carrot — AKA the "dangling carrot" (used in front of a donkey or mule to trick them to continue moving forward at the hope of a nibble) — is on one end of the continuum; it represents a reward only. The stick (need I explain further?) represents the other end, which is used to punish only. When dentists use carrots as incentives, this can inadvertently imply that the task at hand is so unappealing or difficult that the team member requires a bribe to tackle it. It also implies there is no confidence that the team has the ability to do the task without the carrot. The stick approach also signifies the dentist's lack of confidence in the dental team.

When dentists use sticks, they are using power and fear in an attempt to control the team. Now the sad thing is employees do change when they perceive that there is a negative consequence if they don't complete the task or do it in the way the dentist had in mind. But fear only works for the short term, and the dentist has to keep using a bigger stick. In contrast, a self-motivated employee finds an internal reason to go above and beyond what is asked.

Compensation and motivation
Compensation is one of my favorite topics because rewards and punishment in the dental practice can be very subtle. A dentist who is angry because a hygienist has questioned a decision might punish her by chastising her in front of a patient or ignoring her at a morning huddle. A dentist could also unintentionally reward employees to work slowly by always approving overtime or taking on the burden of solving difficult problems for team members. The message can also become very confusing when a leader alternates between reward and punishment. For example, if you implement an incentive plan based on exceeding a daily production goal, don't get frustrated with the team when the schedule becomes overbooked or exhausting.

As a leader you have choices about how to create motivation and change in your practice. You can use the classic punishment, reward system or encourage a self-motivating culture Punishment and rewards do influence employee behavior, but they also create a hierarchy in which each team member depends on the dentist for feedback, consequences, and reinforcement. On the other hand, self-motivated team members internalize the practice's vision and goals and connect those goals with their own. They can measure their behavior against a standard of success that is supported by their compensation model and adjust accordingly. They are enlisted, not conscripted. The best compensation models always integrate pay with the validation of personal needs. When this happen, you can lead your team members to success because they are truly motivated!

Amy Morgan is a renowned dental consultant and CEO of Pride Institute, a nationally acclaimed results-oriented practice management consulting company. She has revitalized thousands of dental practices using Pride's time-proven management systems, so they become more secure, efficient, and profitable. Additionally, Pride offers continuing education, marketing, on-site training and telephone consultation support. For more information, visit Pride Institute or call (800) 925-2600.