Thursday Troubleshooter: How do I approach abrasive OM who causes dental office friction?
An expert addresses how to handle an overbearing office manager.
Question: I have a very touchy question. Our office manager has been in our practice for 30 years and she has a very overpowering personality. She can be quite abrasive when speaking with team members and acts very disrespectful to us at times. She comes and goes as she pleases and has even gotten to the point of having us do a lot of her work. I know she is valuable to the practice, but some of team members are leaving because of her actions. I really like my job and the dentist, and I would like to know the best way to handle this. Our entire team feels the same way as I do.
ANSWER FROM GINNY HEGARTY, SPHR, President, Dental Practice Development, Inc., and current president of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants:
It’s very brave of you to want to step up and take this on, and I commend you for your courage. I think my response will give you the very best opportunity to create a positive outcome for everyone. I offer it with all due respect as I’ve been where you are.
There’s a lot going on in your question. Let’s start here. One thing that jumps out at me is that you’re making some judgments that I suggest you revisit. I say this because of your statement, “Our entire team feels the same way I do.” This tells me that rather than each of you talking directly with your office manager, you are all talking “about” your office manager. This is counterproductive and won’t help any of you.
I realize that it’s very difficult to approach someone that you see as “abrasive and disrespectful,” but have you given any thought to how the office manager may feel she is perceived or treated? Is it possible the office manager could be responding in kind to the negativity and tension in the relationship?
Here’s something I have confirmed over and over again with teams I work with. When asked, “If you were personally doing something that was holding the team back, would you want, a) a coworker to tell you directly b) coworkers to talk amongst themselves about the issue or c) coworkers go to the dentist/owner with the issue,” I consistently hear that team members overwhelmingly prefer that someone come to them directly. This kind of leadership and accountability involves constructive confrontation of the issues rather than involving others in your issues.
Once we involve others, we discuss our opinions and we start judging. By definition, judging is forming an opinion of somebody or something. If this is done before speaking directly with the person, these opinions are made without all the relevant facts.
These opinions then become the story we tell ourselves about what is going on, rather than what is actually happening. The story takes on a life of its own, drama ensues, and many well-intentioned people get hurt. This can be overwhelming for everyone on the team, including the office manager.
As time goes on, there can be so many layers and twists to the plot and so many hurt feelings, that people forget where the line between fact and fiction is. In my experience, everyone soon has a well rehearsed part to play and the practice moves further away from the truth into a soap opera of its own creation. It’s time to stop this insanity.
I have two recommendations for you:
First, I’d ask you to take a deep breath and revisit your story. Take your question apart line by line and remove your opinions so that you have only the facts at hand.
I think you’ll be left with:
* The office manager has been there 30 years
* You like your job and your dentist
* There is a situation that needs to be handled
* You want to help
Second, I would consider “how can you help?” You might consider one last behind the scenes meeting with your coworkers to discuss taking personal accountability to focus on solutions rather than blame.
Then, begin by addressing your own responsibilities or concerns with your office manager. Start with one pressing issue, not a list of past issues. Your goal is to change the dynamic and make it more positive and productive. This is a process. When others come to you to discuss their issues, do not get involved; encourage them to also take their concerns directly to the office manager.
I’m not blaming you or your coworkers, your office manager, or your doctor. You’ll notice that I haven’t addressed the issue of blame at all. I don’t know enough to even begin to, and it would be counterproductive. It’s far more effective to discuss shared purpose and positive change with a forward focus. You all deserve better. Hopefully this is a good first step for all of you.
You might also want to address the bigger team issue, and realize that when this type of drama thrives, profitability generally suffers. What’s the best way to support the entire team to start over with new intention? What are your shared goals? How can you bring everyone together to work toward solutions and avoid blame? Often, this is best done in a practice retreat with an outside, objective facilitator guiding the group. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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