How to critique a team member

Jan. 2, 2023
Critiquing your team members isn't easy, but you need to have these conversations sometimes. The key is remembering that positive feedback leads to better learning.

Have you ever overheard your receptionist’s phone call with a patient and cringed? Has your dental assistant failed to keep up with sterilization and you’ve run out of instruments during the day?

We love our dental team members but, just like us, they’re not perfect, right? As the leaders of our practices it often falls upon our shoulders to correct poor behavior and educate our team members about their mistakes. If you’re like me, you’ve often felt uncomfortable with these conversations.

Related content:

Are your team members receiving enough feedback?

6 management tips tips for better happier staff and better outcomes

I read an excellent article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” from a recent Harvard Business Review that shed some light on why our critiques can fail and how we can do better. I strongly encourage you to read the full article, but I’ll summarize the takeaways for dentists.

Instruction vs. feedback

There are two types of critiques: instruction and feedback. Instruction is “. . .telling people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re lacking . . .” and that can be delivered politely and directly. Running out of instruments during the day is an objective problem; you either have enough instruments during the day or you don’t. I advise dentists to use neutral, diplomatic language when addressing an issue. For example, “Rachel, let’s talk about this sterilization problem. We’re running out of instruments and I’d like for us to figure out what’s causing it.” Don’t use language that blames Rachel for not working the sterilization room correctly before finding out if there is another cause, such as not having enough instruments.

Feedback, on the other hand, is about judging performance. Phone etiquette is more of a subjective issue; there isn’t a single correct way to deal with a patient’s concerns. Sure, there are a lot of ways to talk to patients that are clearly inappropriate, but there are also a lot of ways that are correct.

The authors of the Harvard Business Review article believe the best way to give feedback is to point out when someone performs admirably rather than critique someone when they perform poorly. According to their research, negatively rating performance triggers the sympathetic “fight or flight” system, which does not create the best neurological environment for learning. On the contrary, positive feedback triggers the parasympathetic “rest and digest” system, which stimulates neurogenesis.

So, the next time your team member handles a phone call well, stop the person and say, “Yes, that’s the way to deal with that. Well done!” Positive feedback that is specific and genuine will build better learning and, candidly, is a lot more comfortable than having to reprimand.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2019 and updated regularly