From the Office Manager's Desk: Why can't we all just get along?

Dental Products Report, Dental Products Report-2012-08-01, Issue 8

An office manager's take on how to solve team conflict and achieve team harmony in your dental office.

An office manager's take on how to solve team conflict and achieve team harmony in your dental office.

In my practice, I handle all major staff upsets. I have solved personality conflicts, he said/she said situations, tangles over closing duties and dozens of other tearful crises. As the office manager, I have the time and the training to help staff work through these challenges. This is a win for team members because they know they can come to me when they need help. It’s also a win for the dentists who don’t want to get involved and appreciate someone handling these situations so they can continue working at the chair.

In my practice, some of the approaches we use to solve these problems include:

  • I messages:  "I feel _______ when you do _______"

  • Active listening: "So, what I'm hearing you say is _______"

  • Problem solving: A five-step process

Thanks to my practice’s comprehensive dental staff training program, I have been trained in each of these approaches. So, when we have an upset, the dentists know I will take care of it. Most office managers are responsible for handling dental staff conflict, yet few receive the training needed to handle these challenges smoothly. Here are some ideas to achieve team harmony and solve dental staff conflict.

Related: Do you know what your staff really thinks about you?

Assistant team vacation upset

We have about five assistants on our team, and although each one primarily assists one dentist, there are occasions (vacation/illness) where assistants end up working together who normally do not work together. So, it turned out that our dentist’s summer vacation season was causing some drama because two different sets of assistants were working together that normally do not.

Secretary team attitude upset

I have about eight secretary team members (and four of them are in levels 5+, which means they are super well-trained) and again, they each coordinate for a specialist plus work with our general dentists so everyone is nicely cross-trained. Because they sit and work closely together (four chairs at one front desk and three chairs on the specialist side) attitude is everything-and one bad apple can really ruin the bunch. The group was feeling that one person on the team had a bad attitude day after day, and the little instances of negativity were building up. So, in their meeting we talked about specific situations so everyone could see what the problems were and then we talked about how the team felt.

Related: QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Small problems don’t just disappear

In each of these teams, the problems were relatively small. These problems could easily have been ignored. "Just an unusual schedule" for the assistants because they don't normally work together, or "just a bad day" for the secretary. However, these problems weren't going away on their own; instead they were building up and affecting the rest of the team. So, my role was to address the problems. I led each of these discussions and helped every team member share a comment so everyone felt they had a piece of the discussion.

He said/she said

One thing I noticed in each of these meetings (with a staff that has been trained in communication) is every team got hung up with a 'he said/she said' situation. I witnessed two assistants doing this and then one week later, two secretaries literally saying the same thing:

You said _____

No, I didn't! I said _______

Yes, you did! I heard you! You said _______

No, you heard wrong. I really said ________

So, if you want to achieve team harmony and solve dental office team conflict, you must stop this conversation! As we all know, this conversation gets us nowhere. There is no way to agree and no one wins. If you hear this in your office, then you must intervene.

A solution

Instead of talking about what words were said, let's talk about how you each feel.

Then, ask one of them to start again with an I message. Here's an example: "I felt like you don't appreciate my time when you asked me to take an x-ray for you when I could see an opening in your schedule at the same time." No one can argue with how you feel.

Let me say that again: No one can argue with how you feel.

Dentists and dental office managers can enjoy team harmony when no one can argue!

The good news is that after every team member shared their feelings and had some time to 'speak their peace,' everyone is feeling better. In fact, part of my job is to do the follow up. So, two weeks after any drama I go back to the individuals and ask how they are feeling about things now. In both situations, I heard lots of positive comments. Hooray! On to next week.

Jill Nesbitt is a dental consultant and practicing office manager for a multi-specialty private dental group. Nesbitt has managed the practice for 14 years, has state-level quality training, and coaches dental teams to improve the business-side of their practices.