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Women Working With Women: From sabotage to support

Jan. 1, 2003
In the predominately female-staffed dental practice, we often hear comments like these: "We work pretty well together considering we're all females," or...

In the predominately female-staffed dental practice, we often hear comments like these: "We work pretty well together considering we're all females," or "There's so much third-grade pettiness in this office, I'm looking for another job." In the office with a male dentist and an all-female staff, we might hear these words: "Keeping a smile on all these women's faces at the same time is impossible," or more severe statements such as, "I think I'll fire them all and hire male employees. Certainly men don't act like these women."

Throughout the history of the dental profession, women working in harmony day in and day out has been tested from practice to practice. Ten years ago, I was asked to present a seminar for dentists and their female staff members to help improve interoffice relationships. In 2003, I am teaming up with Gina McMeans, a family and marriage counselor from Phoenix, Ariz., specializing in conflict resolution, to redesign this program. McMeans has a dental business background in addition to her training in workplace behavioral studies.

I believe these are the main reasons for conflict in the workplace:

  1. The office's "inner and outer circle" — This delineation is caused by differences in work ethics, personal values, age, and tenure within the team. Add to that family issues and background diversity, and people can clash. Realizing that others' strengths can compliment a person's weaknesses is paramount in developing a healthy work environment.
  2. An uneven distribution of trust and praise from the employer to the employees — This is a major factor contributing to jealousy among staff members and the "Queen Bee attitude" that often destroys a happy workplace.
  3. A lack of communication between the back office and the front office — Poor communication can create a monumental amount of stress for the dentist and the entire team, not to mention the inefficiencies. Poor communication within the practice is responsible for many frustrating breakdowns in relationships. As we all know, it isn't the daily happenings in a practice that bring us stress, but, rather, how we choose to deal with the issues. Having patience and keeping a positive attitude is the key.
  4. Lack of respect — This ranks high on the scale on interoffice problems that could be alleviated if dentists and their female staffs could learn to be more respectful and tolerant of one another.
  5. Lack of teamwork — This is a huge problem in some practices. Realizing that the word teamwork means entirely different things to different people will bring a higher degree of understanding as to how this term is misused. Discussing expectations is key. The more employees in a practice, the more clearly your expectations must be defined. Solid teamwork can revolve around a vision.
  6. Being overly friendly with staff — While I advocate being friendly with staff members, this does not mean being "one of their best friends." We hear things like, "I love working with a woman dentist. Since she's also a mom, she allows us to work around our children's activities because she understands." But if employees get their wishes granted every time they ask to come in late, take off early, or be excused for their children's school activities, they will soon be taking advantage of their employer. Staff members who are not moms feel taken advantage of too, because they are not the ones asking for time off. Going out with the staff several times a week for meals or shopping or weekend trips often spells trouble. The old adage, "familiarity breeds contempt," is true. Involvement in professional organizations like the American Association of Women Dentists and networking with other professionals who have similar joys and challenges is far better than being best friends with anyone on the payroll.
  7. Unmotivated co-workers — This is one of the main reasons for poor morale among women. I have often jokingly discussed the four speeds at which people work: slow, medium, fast, and like snails on Valium! Part of the secret to working in harmony is understanding that everyone may not move at your same pace.
  8. A negative attitude — Some people are just not morning people or "people persons," while others are over the top with enthusiasm for just being in the office at starting time. These positive people tend to have personal conversations with everyone, including the mail delivery person. It is important to learn to mood-match with patients, control zealous enthusiasm when it is inappropriate, and accept other people's styles.
  1. Self-esteem factors — Self-esteem is part of the equation when training takes place with-in the practice. We know for a fact that we prefer to do tasks that we do well. Continuous in-office training is a must for the thriving practice, because it is only as strong as its weakest link. Confidence and competency equal a healthy self-esteem. People with a healthy self-esteem see their work as a challenge, not a frustration. They have an "I can do it" attitude, and they thrive on demanding goals.
  2. Image concerns — Image has a lot to do with a winning attitude and how people treat one another in the workplace. Women are especially critical when it comes to how others look or "should" look. Having a great image definitely improves efficiency. We tend to take care of our tasks the same way we take care of ourselves. A neat appearance impacts the way we interact with patients, co-workers, and employers.

Taking these 10 factors into consideration, rate yourself and your practice on a scale of 1 to 10 to see where you fall short of having a healthy, productive work environment.

On a more positive note, some female staff members attend my seminars with their female employers and say, "I love working for a woman dentist and would never work for a man again," or "We are like sisters. Our boss can't believe what a high degree of respect we have for each other. We don't have that typically reported backstabbing found in other practices."

Still other comments are, "We stay on the team for each other. We may not like our employer, but we stay for each other."

One male dentist told me that he was so frustrated with the six women in his practice that he was determined to find out who was "poisoning the well."

When he couldn't identify the troublemaker, he fired all six of them and hired all males. Then, after having an all-male staff for about six months, he decided that male employees were worse than women, so he fired all six of the men and rehired six different women!

It really doesn't matter whether an employee is male or female. The bottom line is respect, a good attitude, and a caring manner.

The most important key to success is having a group of positive, accountable em-ployees who want their dentist to be the most successful doctor in town, who are proud of their doctor's dentistry and fees, and who strive for excellence.

I hope I will see you at one of our upcoming WWWW Seminars in 2003. Watch my Web site — www.dentalmanage — for information on dates and locations. Gina McMeans will be writing an article to complement this one in an upcoming issue of Woman Dentist Journal.

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Linda Miles, CMC
Ms. Miles is a practice-management speaker, consultant, and author. She is founder of the Speaking/Consulting Network, an annual conference for speakers, consultants, and authors. You may contact Ms. Miles at (800) 922-0866 or [email protected].