Savage Whiners

Winners aren’t whiners: Resolving negativity in the dental office

April 15, 2013
Whiners have to be dealt with or they ruin office morale

At the morning huddle, Debbie Downer gripes about the schedule … again. “Why is Mrs. Jones at 8 a.m.? We won’t have enough time because Mr. Timmons is coming in at 9:45. And this afternoon, we have way too much time for this implant seat.” She rants on… “On top of that, today our team meeting agenda includes a demonstration by the implant rep. Why do we have to do that on our lunch break? Nothing’s ever set up right in this office!”

Debbie Downer can be the doctor, assistant, front desk, or hygienist. The symptoms of whiners are typical:

  • Whiners list complaints instead of presenting solutions
  • They use words such as “never, always, nothing”
  • They drain and zap the energy of the listeners
  • Whiners cause good attitudes to drop and gossip to increase
  • Like a pit bull, whiners will chew on a complaint, even if it’s been resolved. Whiner’s problems rarely go away and are not resolved in their minds
  • Whiners often swear or rant
  • Whiners whine with a whiney tone in their voice
  • Controlling whiners may either give people the silent treatment or explode in anger

If this is allowed to continue, morale will go down. Whiners can suck the life out a practice because negativity can spread like a rampant virus.

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What is an office to do with a whiner? Here are a series of five action steps to try:

Briefly listen to the whiner. Limit your listening time to just two to three minutes. Paraphrase the concern and offer a positive solution. If this doesn’t change the behavior, ask the complainer what he or she would do to resolve the situation.

Doctors, office managers, or team leaders: As a leader, ask yourself if you’re a whiner. Are you contributing to the situation? This is a tough question, but self-examination is important because attitude reflects leadership. Are you part of the problem? I know I’ve called myself on the carpet at times, personally chastising myself for being a whiner. Sometimes whining is a reflection of what’s happening in a person’s life. I recently had a tough family time, but I had to stop and consider how my whiney behavior was impacting my team.

Encourage the negative team member to talk about what’s not going well, but any concerns must come with two to three positive suggestions for change.
If the whiner persists, respectfully use the feel-felt-found method to approach the person. “I feel uncomfortable bringing this up, but I’ve felt frustrated talking with you. I’ve found if we can focus on positive energy and time working on solutions, our practice can grow. Morale is down because of the negative talk. My intentions are that morale will go up with a positive focus on solutions.”
If the whiner is a coworker, and you’ve been unable to resolve the situation, talk with your office manager or doctor. The three of you should sit down and talk and work on a positive outcome to any concerns. If the doctor or office manager will not address the issue, your only options are to walk away and focus on the positive, or find another job. Of course, this all depends upon the situation. Walking away and refusing to participate in the negativity is important. Don’t let a whiner keep you from the important work you do in the practice.

Sadly, exposure to nonstop negativity can disrupt learning, attention, memory, and judgment, according to Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology at Stanford University.

When negativity goes up, morale goes down. When morale goes down, production follows. Often the whiner has little knowledge of the impact his or her behavior has on the team and practice. The person needs to know specifically how their behavior impacts the practice. With clear, up front coaching, if the behavior continues, the person has made a decision. You cannot give someone a good attitude. Attitude is a choice. What you can do is clearly define boundaries of expected behavior.

Deal with the issue directly if you’re the leader in the practice. There are times that despite coaching and direct feedback, the behavior continues. To protect the practice, document, document, document. Then have a formal, sit-down, corrective review. Clearly define, in writing, the behaviors that need to change. The review form should state, “This continued behavior will affect your ability to retain your job.” Give the employee a timeframe for the change and hold the person accountable. Sit down in the next two to four weeks and review any positive changes and if there is a need for further change.

If the negativity returns or the employee refuses to change, let the person go. Have a final paycheck ready and ask for their keys. Say, “It’s a business decision.” Don’t get sucked into a discussion about why. At this point, there is nothing you can say that will change this person. Have a witness present for the termination and also for the formal corrective review.

On a positive note, letting a person go can lead to a huge upswing in morale. Have you ever been in a situation where the negative person was suddenly gone, and the absence of negativity was so huge that there was a palpable change? Often, we don’t realize how much of a drain a negative person can be on the practice. I’ve experienced this feeling when I let a negative employee go. It’s not easy to do. In fact this type of action can wrench your gut and cause you to lose sleep at night. If you’re feeling like this, it’s time to change what’s happening in your practice.

As part of your change, I have a question for you. Do you have an excellent employee/office policy manual in your office? If not, contact [email protected]. Also, contact me at [email protected] for a copy of our personnel evaluation form. Then, make the hard decision to coach, correct, or dismiss. While taking these actions are tough, you’ll feel positive because you’ll be taking action.

Rhonda Savage, DDS, is an internationally known author and lecturer, and CEO of Miles Global, an international dental training and consulting firm. She lectures and publishes on women’s health issues, leadership, and business management. Dr. Savage is a past president of the Washington State Dental Society, and an Affiliate Faculty Member of the University of Washington School of Dentistry. She is also a member of the Pierre Fauchard Academy, American College of Dentists, and the International College of Dentists. A former dental assistant and front office staff member, she understands the dynamics of success in a dental team. As a dentist in private practice, she brings a unique energy to her work. A Lieutenant Commander in the Navy during the years of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Dr. Savage received the Navy Achievement Medal and an Expert Pistol Medal, earning her the nickname “The Beast." Contact her at [email protected] or