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Being a successful practice means being able to resolve conflict and keep turnover low by practicing good leadership skills.
Jolene Diode, RDH was daydreaming while finishing up her 3:30 PM patient. In her mind, she was reviewing everything she had to do that evening before the guests arrived at 7:00 PM for her beloved husband’s surprise 40th birthday party. She had one more adult periodontic maintenance appointment that afternoon and hoped to leave promptly at 5:30 PM. For whatever reason, she glanced at the computer screen and noticed a new entry on her hygiene schedule for a new child patient at 5:30 PM Jolene’s face turned a bright shade of red, but she worked hard to keep her composure. Finally, when she was able to excuse herself from the patient for a few minutes, she marched towards the front desk with tears in her eyes and asked Noel, the front office manager, for an explanation. Noel blew her off, saying she assumed Jolene would still be finished around 5:30 PM even knowing in advance that Jolene had to be out at that time. Jolene, a recent graduate, didn’t know how to handle the situation and banged on the front desk, knocking over a large decorative ceramic giraffe which hit the tile floor and broke into several pieces. The situation went from bad to worse and Jolene ended up in the patient restroom, bawling her eyes out.
Have you ever experienced anything like this scenario in your practice? Want to learn how to avoid drama, hard feelings and hygiene turnover?
Leadership and resolving conflict go hand in hand and dental practices that lack this important management component have high employee turnover. Today’s stressful dental environment often alienates dental hygienists and in recent years, before the COVID-19 pandemic, workload and immediate supervisor are often mentioned as a major contributor to turnover.1 Now, during the pandemic, hygienists are feeling even more heat (in more ways than one including the wearing of an N95!) from having to compensate for hygienists who have quit or who have not yet returned to a full workload. Maybe, instead, your front desk person thinks the hygienist is a superhero who doesn’t need the bathroom or a lunch break or maybe he/she is scheduled to treat patients every 30 minutes.
Reducing Turnover and Handling Conflict
In my decades of clinical practice, I’ve frequently noticed ineffective resolution and management of conflicts. Examples of this included unclear or wishy washy communication and a misunderstanding of the perceived area of disagreement. Sometimes, believe it or not, the solution is simple. Here’s an example: a busy hygienist (yes, me) blew up at a dedicated dental assistant because the assistant took a photo of the hygienist’s (mine) dirty instruments in the sterilization room sink. The hygienist (me) didn’t have time to clean her tray because she was late in seating the next patient and the dental assistant’s job was to clean the providers’ (dentist and hygienist) trays. The hygienist immediately marched into the DDS practice owner’s office and told him what happened. (I couldn’t help myself at the time and my blood was boiling.) The DDS practice owner did his best to diffuse the situation and remind the dental assistant that it was her job to clean trays, but the conflict continued, and the assistant and hygienist continued to verbally attack each other. Suddenly, the dental assistant blurted out, “I love you” to the hygienist (yes, me) and, believe it or not, the two of them talked, hugged and the problem was resolved!
In the above example of conflict, the hygienist (me) felt an immediate threat to her needs. Our relationship in the practice was complex and we respected and liked each other. In the end, the hygienist and assistant solved the problem themselves and just let it go but oftentimes this is not the case.
During and post COVID-19, healthy environments may be harder to achieve, at least in the foreseeable future. Breakdown in communication and collaboration can lead to increased patient errors and a lack of continuity. Let’s review some of the ways to assess and handle conflict in the healthcare environment. Discuss these issues at a team meeting, keep them tucked away for future consideration or add some of these items to your employee manual.
Depending on the size of the dental practice, monitor employment engagement levels through employee surveys. In small practices, this can be done verbally as a small group or individually. Watch for signs of disconnect like unhappy employees. Watching for more serious issues like absenteeism or tardiness may indicate job-related issues.
A solution requires managing a conflict that successfully meets the goal of reaching an acceptable outcome for all parties involved. There’s nothing more frustrating than working in a dental practice with an atmosphere of chaos and animosity. Workplace overload is common today and most hygienists want to focus on patient care and leave office drama behind. At the end of the day, a health care worker wants to shut the practice front door, knowing that he/she made a difference in the life of every patient.