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Dealing with "May I have a moment?"

May 4, 2018
Busy dentist bosses will no doubt be faced with uncomfortable employee conversations. It's just part of the job. Here's how to make those conversations easier.

It’s a typical Friday in your office. Patients are running late due to traffic, there are emergency walk-in patients, you’re running late due to personal commitments, and the treatment coordinator cannot stay to explain the eight veneer cases you just diagnosed. It’s one of those days.

When everyone is just about done for the day, you go back to your desk and see the big note the office manager left for you. It says, ”Doctor, make sure to talk to Anna about …” These talks are difficult because they can be sensitive, emotionally draining, and just plain annoying. Of course, this does not include the end-of-the-day “May I have a moment with you?” talk that a staff member initiates when you feel dead tired.

Reasons employees "may need a moment"

“I feel I deserve a raise,” “I don’t like Susan and I can’t work with her,” “ I need to leave early every day and you should let me because I have been with you for so many years,” and the infamous threat, “I’ve been looking around and I’m considering moving on.”

In my many years as a general dentist, owning several multispecialty group practices and discussing this issue at numerous conferences, I know that many of us are challenged when having these difficult talks with staff members. Frankly, telling them what you expect from them can be stressful.

You might also be interested in: Embracing conflict in the workplace

Training in US dental schools provides almost zero discussion about business and management. After eight or more years of schooling, a new dentist graduates and needs to run a real business, including marketing, overhead, managing employees, and more, and they’re expected to do it well.

So, what should you expect when you’re expecting a certain level of dedication, professionalism, and competency from your staff?

Start with your goals

The first thing you should do is work on developing clarity—know who you are, what your business goals are, and how you can achieve those goals. You first need to know yourself and what is most important to you. As dentists, we often own small businesses and work closely with our staffs. We want their support and understanding, and some want their staff’s approval too.

It is really important that you operate your business for yourself first, know your goals, and only do things that support your goals (provided that they’re legal and ethical, of course). Once you have this, create protocols and expectations in writing and share these with your team. For example, you can create a code of conduct that lists 10 behaviors you expect from your staff. Then, when you have a difficult conversation, it only has to be a discussion about a specific code, why the issue is a violation of the code, and what you as the owner can do to help someone achieve compliance with the code. The discussion becomes entirely about the behavior (a number in the code) and not about the person or emotion. When you are clear about what you expect and communicate that to the team, it becomes much easier to establish expectation during a difficult talk.

What will help when you must have these difficult conversations to resolve personal conflict between staff members? You can consider using tools such as the Kolbe test to profile the staff and their modes of action, and then encourage them to play to their strengths. This may involve having staff members who are similar to each other work on the same project, or moving people from one team to another. Make sure you’ve already done everything you can to minimize conflict and then address only the behavior, not the person. Additionally, you’ll be able to refer them to their individual profiles to help them understand what’s causing the conflict.

Have the courage to follow through

As a leader in the office, you must have the courage to explain what you want and communicate what you expect. Some doctors avoid conflict and feel frustrated or resentful toward the staff. Some doctors are afraid that people will leave the practice after a difficult conversation. When you’re personally clear about what you want, train your staff in the protocols, and clearly communicate what you expect, you should not dread difficult conversations. They may still be challenging but you can conduct them from a place of respect and understanding, and you’ll be able to focus on facts and logic, not emotions.

Not everything goes according to plan, and sometimes Murphy’s law rules in the office. However, with clarity and the courage to run your office the way you want to, with the staff’s support, you will find that you truly can expect the results that you’re expecting from your dental practice.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2018 and updated regularly

About the Author

Emily Letran, DDS

Emily Letran, DDS, is a speaker, high performance trainer, author, CEO, and dentist in Southern California.