May 1, 2007
LEADERSHIP can be poignant and daunting for a woman dentist - poignant because she wants to nurture her staff and be liked and respected by them, and daunting because she tries to be all things to all people.

By Amy Morgan

LEADERSHIP can be poignant and daunting for a woman dentist - poignant because she wants to nurture her staff and be liked and respected by them, and daunting because she tries to be all things to all people. This is why leadership can feel to many women dentists like climbing Mount Everest without the Sherpas. Wouldn’t it be great to lead your team in a nonblameful, focused way that delivers what they need without their becoming defensive or simply ignoring you? Leadership can be difficult because employees approach new goals, tasks, skills, and situations with different strengths and challenges, which can result in behaviors unexpectedly different from their previous patterns. Have you ever been baffled by a willing, trusted employee who suddenly falters with a new skill, or for no apparent reason seems to lose commitment?

Years ago, struggling with my own leadership, I discovered Ken Blanchard. Honestly, the renowned theory of Situational Leadership® created by him and Paul Hersey has been a primary ingredient in my success as a consultant, trainer, and CEO of a staff of 40, which is why we now teach Situational Leadership customized for dentists in our formal curriculum. This theory revealed to me that leadership is something I can do with people, not to people, which transformed my interactions with staff from monologue to dialogue and vastly increased my effectiveness. Let me reveal the magic to you.

Cookie-cutter leadership doesn’t work

Situational Leadership teaches that there is no cookie-cutter approach to all staff at all times. Quoting Blanchard from one of his best-sellers, “The Heart of a Leader,” “The problem Paul Hersey and I found was that asking inexperienced members of a team to participate in decision making amounted to ‘pooling ignorance.’ Some people need a ‘directive’ leadership style until their knowledge and skills mature. Our response was to develop a concept called Situational Leadership, which can be summed up in the statement, ‘different strokes for different folks.’”

Staff exhibit degrees of competence and confidence

Consider Alice, a dental assistant who has always shown competence and confidence. When the doctor introduces CEREC, however, Alice falls apart. She appears surprisingly disgruntled and needs to be told exactly what to do and how to do it.

Contrast that to Mary, an office manager and the confidant of her woman-dentist employer. Mary has always been enthusiastic in her leadership role at staff meetings, but recently she arrives late and participates minimally. In the first case, Alice lacks the knowledge, resources, experience, and confidence to perform her new tasks involving CEREC (and she knows it). Her lack of competence and confidence is the issue, which affects her commitment. By contrast, Mary the manager knows exactly what to do, but shows less motivation and confidence in performing her role than previously. Hence, Mary’s commitment is the issue.

What do most women dentists do with their Alices and Marys? They may push, cajole, or give pep talks to Alice about why she should love CEREC. And they may pretend nothing is wrong with Mary or worry internally, but do absolutely nothing to address the issue. Neither approach gives Alice or Mary what they or the dentist need - happy, well-trained staff members who are ready, willing, and able to do what they need to do.

Different performance issues need different leadership skills

Situational Leadership trains dentists to support staff members by diagnosing their levels of development and adopting leadership styles that best address their needs. A diagnosis depends on the employee’s competence and commitment level pertaining to a specific goal, task, or skill. Situational Leadership skills appropriate to handle development levels include directing, supporting, coaching, and delegating.

Alice the assistant needs high direction and support to increase her competence and confidence. She needs to know how to do her new task, why she is doing it, and how to use transferable abilities she possesses to aid her in learning the new task. Providing direction to Alice includes teaching, supervising, showing, evaluating, and giving her structure.

Mary the manager, who already knows how to perform the task, needs coaching on why she isn’t doing it and on what she needs to boost her motivation. Providing coaching includes asking for her input, listening to her, facilitating problem-solving, encouraging, and supporting.

Employees advance in four levels

Situational Leadership breaks down an employee’s performance of a goal, task, or skill into four development levels called D1 through D4. When the employee has no information or experience, he or she is at a stage of low competence. People often have high commitment and enthusiasm embarking on a new skill before they realize what is involved in learning it. This stage of low competence and high commitment describes D1, which Blanchard calls the enthusiastic beginner. Alice the assistant was enthused when the doctor first announced that CEREC was coming, and was even a bit cocky, telling the dentist to “bring it on.”

Shortly after CEREC arrived, however, the new skills needed to succeed hit home. Alice realized how much she didn’t know. This moved her to the D2 level, characterized by medium-to-low competence joined by low commitment, called the disillusioned learner. To female dentists who fear conflict, an employee’s shift from D1 (enthusiastic beginner) to D2 (disillusioned learner) can feel like a setback, although it actually shows progress because the learner now has a realistic view of what is needed to become proficient.

If the dentist gives Alice the leadership she needs (direction and support), the disillusioned learner will graduate to the third level, D3, where she will have acquired medium-to-high competence, but may still exhibit variable confidence and motivation. This D3 level is called capable but cautious.

If the dentist continues to support Alice and give her opportunities to demonstrate her skills and feel like an expert at CEREC, she will move to the final level, D4. Here Alice will demonstrate high competence and high commitment. Blanchard calls this stage the self-reliant achiever. If you ultimately want a self-directed work team you can delegate work to, then your goal is to lead people in becoming self-reliant achievers at specific goals, tasks, and skills.

Once an employee becomes a self-reliant achiever in relation to a task, the only variable in the future is the person’s commitment because apart from a lobotomy, you can’t remove competence once it is achieved. Mary the manager illustrates an employee who was highly competent and committed to leading staff meetings. A change in her motivation reduced her temporarily to the D3 level - still fully capable, but not wholeheartedly committed.

Each development level requires its own leadership skills

Situational Leadership teaches us to be flexible in the leadership skills we use. Each development level requires specific tools that combine the two basic leadership skills of providing direction and support. Enthusiastic beginners require little support because they are already enthusiastic. They need you to tell and show them what to do. That leadership style would be high directive, low support.

Once employees graduate to D2, disillusioned learners, they still need teaching and directing, but now they also need lots of coaching. The leadership style required to advance the disillusioned learner is a combination of high direction and high support.

Once staff members advance to D3, capable but cautious, or backslide into it from D4 because of reduced confidence or motivation, they require little direction because they know what to do, but they still need tremendous support.

When staff members finally reach D4 and behave like self-reliant achievers, they require low direction and low support from you. They should feel competent and confident enough to tell you what they are doing right. The primary goal of the leader is to provide opportunities for self-reliant achievers to share their successes and toot their own horns.

The push-pull principle for directing and supporting employees

I like to describe the difference between directive and supportive leadership as the “push-pull principle.” I think of it this way: Is there new information I need to push into my employees (the directive approach), or do they already have the information they need, and I have to pull it out of them (the supportive approach)?

What does it sound like when you push information in? You may be explaining, demonstrating, inspiring, appreciating. I suggest:

  • “I need you to use CEREC in this way ….
  • “This is what the task looks like ….
  • “Imagine if you did this ….
  • “I like the way you work with CEREC.”

When you pull information out, the skill might sound as if you are asking, understanding, seeking, empathizing, clarifying:

  • “How can I help you become more motivated at staff meetings?
  • “What do you mean by not feeling as in control of the staff meeting?
  • “Could you tell me more about the frustrations you’re experiencing at the staff meeting?
  • “I sense you’re feeling less inspired regarding the staff meeting.
  • “From your perspective, the staff meetings are frustrating you because ….”

Each of these skills will result in either directing a person to higher competence or supporting him or her to increased confidence and motivation.

Dental teams can identify the difficult tasks and challenges of their jobs as they continuously improve and strive for personal excellence. They can diagnose their own development levels at performing their tasks, and they can come to understand what they need from their leaders to become high achievers. Their knowledge of Situational Leadership is a big help to you and makes partnering for performance much easier.

How to be a situational leader

All it requires is that you be able to answer “yes” to three fundamental questions:

1Can I diagnose my staff member’s development level?

To help you do this, ask yourself:
a) Can my staff member do the task?
b) Does he or she want to do it?

2Can I be flexible in giving the leadership style appropriate to the situation?

To do this, ask yourself:
a) Do I need to tell the staff member what to do? or
b) Why isn’t the staff member doing what he or she knows how to do?

Without flexibility, each of us lapses into the leadership style most natural to us, either directive or supportive. The good news is that we will be right half of the time. The bad news is we will be wrong half the time, on the occasions when the employee does not need the only skill in our toolkit.

3Can I partner with my staff for optimal performance?

This is the most important leadership skill. To diagnose and decide the leadership style without collaborating with the employee is a monologue and can appear manipulative and dictatorial. If you see a staff member struggling, the best conversation you can have contains a shared language of leadership in which a staff member can say, “I feel like I’m a disillusioned learner, and I need both direction and support.”

There is no blame and no defensiveness, only a common vocabulary of leadership. There is no stigma attached to being in stages of a natural learning process. All of my consultants can come to me with the language and understanding to say what development level they’re at and what they require from me as a leader. With our hectic schedules, this makes life much easier for all.

Do you want all employees in the highest development level at all times?

The compulsive type of dentist who seeks perfection at everything makes a huge leadership mistake by thinking that all staff should be at D4 - self-reliant achievers with high competence and confidence - regarding all tasks and skills at all times. If the ultimate goal is to be only in D4, then no one can ever learn a new skill, strive for new statistical levels of success, innovate, risk, or change.

The mark of a learning organization is to be continuously improving. This means the staff (and leader) can be in all four developmental stages at any given time with respect to different tasks and skills. The only way you will never have to deal with the disillusioned learner (D2) is to stop assigning new tasks or skills. The D2’s frustration is a natural stage in the learning process. The D3’s hesitations and misgivings are also natural as situations change in the practice and in one’s personal life. As soon as this is identified and understood, staff members and you can feel safe going through these stages.

In directing and supporting you in Situational Leadership, I"m hoping this article will produce enthusiastic beginners, who will try these skills with their teams, and also some disillusioned learners, who will initially fail at it and conclude (at least temporarily), ‘No way, no how.’ Either way, I will have done my job and gotten you on the road to mastering a new skill. Now it is your job to get the continued direction and support you need to apply these essential skills. I challenge you all to become self-reliant achievers at Situational Leadership.