Doctor sitting behind a desk talking to his assistant.

Let me tell you the story of the time I made my dental assistant cry.

No, I didn't do it on purpose. Though from some of the stories I've heard about the way some dentists treat our assistants, I have to wonder if several of our more insensitive colleagues don't enjoy making people cry. I mean, it's no secret our profession has a bit of a sadistic reputation.

Anyway, I'm not a heartless Grinch. I care deeply about the staff at my practice in Ancaster, Ontario – both personally and professionally. I just made a mistake many of us make. Here's what happened:

I noticed “Amber” was moving a little slower than usual. Her normally sunshiny face was decidedly overcast that day. She made a few minor mistakes that could have turned major if I hadn't caught them.

So, near the end of the day, I pulled her aside, sat in front of her, and said, “You don't seem yourself today. Some things are slipping through the cracks a little. Is there something wrong?”

I thought I was showing concern, compassion, and empathy but after about two minutes, Amber was sobbing, and I was scrambling to find the tissues.

After Amber calmed down, she told me she “… felt cornered. Interrogated. It feels like you're questioning my commitment and my work ethic.” She felt I was calling her lazy.

Of course, that's not what I meant, and certainly not what I said. But what she heard was much more important than what I really said. Perception is reality. If you don't understand that concept, I have three words for you – don't get married.

But seriously, something about my approach to Amber was off. The setting. My body language. My words. The timing. Something.

And here's the thing – that same approach (timing, setting, words) might have a very different result with someone else. In fact, I had experienced different results using that exact same approach with one of Amber's co-workers just a few days before.

But for whatever reason, I didn't get the result I wanted with that approach with Amber. We eventually worked through it, but it wasn't easy, and our relationship was never quite the same again. I dug myself into quite a hole and I'm not sure I ever fully recovered.

Read more from Dr. Michael Ling, D.D.S.

Dental team members are people, and people are individuals

What am I saying here? Two things.

First, I'm saying people are unique, messy and unpredictable. Well, duh, right? Well, maybe not so “duh” for dentists. I think this is a lesson dentists find harder to learn and apply than people in other professions because – I don't know about you – but beginning way back in dental school, I became quite the clinical geek. I loved fixing teeth. And, as I think about why I'm that way, I realize part of the reason is that teeth are predictable and logical to deal with.

Dentists love logical, technical, predictable solutions. “If this, then that.” A lot of clinical dentistry is routine. How much of your clinical day is spent on autopilot?

Etch. Prime. Bond.

Prep. Impress. Temp.

Clean. Shape. Irrigate. Obturate.

It's often the mindless, tedious work where I find the most peace and enjoyment in my workday.

Imagine a patient comes into your office with a bad toothache. What goes through your head? Without even looking in their mouth, you're already thinking, “OK, this can only be one of a handful of things – pulpitis, irreversible pulpits or a cracked tooth. The tooth needs some TLC or maybe endo, or maybe exo.”

And you'd be right 99% of the time. Because when a tooth hurts, 99% of the time it's one of those reasons. And when you perform the procedure (that's 99% the same steps every time), you get the same result 99% of the time (OK, maybe not quite 99% but you get my point).

Ah, if only the humans we work with were so predictable.

But they're not and dentists sometimes forget to switch from tooth-fixer mode to human-being mode. We don't like switching from tooth mode to human mode because, often, we're not nearly as good at human mode.

You wouldn't like endo either if you broke a file every other case.

And when it comes to dealing with our staff, we are highly susceptible to programs that promise to finally make human mode predictable: magic bullet systems, checklists, bonus structures, and the latest “Three Steps to a Motivated Staff” from the guru-of-the-month.

These solutions seem logical, rational, one-size-fits-all. They seem, in a word, “clinical.” And we are suckers for anything clinical. I have been. I'm guilty of taking the “Three Steps” practice guru bait many times.

If only it were that easy. If only you could just sign up for $89/month and fix your human problems forever. Yeah right.

It's been my experience (and probably yours too if you're reading this) that these “logical” solutions never really solve the human problems at the core of most staffing issues. Sometimes they even make things worse.

The dental practice staff Dr. Ling works with Jessica, Katherine and Ashley.

A lack of trust, direction or support

Secondly, most staffing problems look like this: You notice one of your staff is lazy or unmotivated.

So, you apply a logical, clinical solution that's supposed to work wonders to motivate that so-called lazy staff member. Toothache – irreversible pulpitis – endo, right? Some bonus program, some checklist, some motivational technique one of your colleagues (or some self-proclaimed expert on Facebook) has been raving about.

And sometimes you get lucky and the solution works. In that case, you pat yourself on the back and convince yourself this human stuff is easy. You go to Facebook and brag to all your friends about how this is the human solution they've all been searching for.

But often, the solution fails. The employee maybe shapes up for a week or two and then goes right back to the way they were before. And you're back to asking, “Well, what method should I try next?”

Of course, by pushing harder and harder with the wrong tool, the employees (and their trust and their morale and their value) disintegrate like a lower molar in a cowhorn.

In their excellent book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath say this approach is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. The error lies in our inclination to attribute people's behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

When it comes to staff, focusing on the fact they seem lazy and unmotivated is focusing on the way they are. Not on the situation they are in.

In my experience, maybe 1% of the time, if your employee truly is a lazy and unmotivated (or dishonest or incompetent or mentally incapable) person you should just remove them from your team.

And before you ask: No, there is no test you can run to see if your problem employee is in the 99 or the 1 percent. Stop thinking like a tooth fixer.

But 99% of the time your so-called lazy employee problems are the result of them being in a situation where they lack:

  1. Trust
  2. Direction
  3. Support.

(Here's where I will deviate from my own made-up rules for a minute and attempt to put humans into a neat little logical box. In my experience, 99% of human problems at work can be traced back to a lack of either trust, direction, and/or support.)

And the treatment or solution is different for each of those root causes.

Just like with teeth, you can't prescribe a solution until you know the real cause. And laziness is almost always not the real cause. The situation you've created, or allowed to form, almost always is.

Leaders trust, give direction and support team members

So, what can you do?

Well, of course, don't treat people like teeth. Understand humans are not logical, predictable, or homogeneous. Get to know each member of your staff as individuals. Understand their personal goals, desires, principles, and motivations. This is not easy for dentists. But it's essential if we want to have a staff that will enable us to grow our practices and be as successful as we want to be.

You can't grow without a staff who can grow with you.

And don't make the fundamental attribution error. When you're tempted to say, “That employee is lazy,” stop. And instead ask, “How can I change the situation to provide more direction, trust, and support?”

I'm reminded of the parable I first read in Stephen Covey's “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Here's my paraphrase: There is a company trying to cut a path through a thick jungle. At the bottom are the workers hacking away as hard as they can. At the next level are managers who select the sharpest machetes for the hackers. And at the top is the visionary who looks out over the tops of the trees and says, “We're in the wrong forest – hack that way instead!”

The one at the top must make sure their workers are in the right situation and are headed in the right direction. That's your job – to give direction. And trust. And support.


Commenter's Profile Image Shawn S.
December 3rd, 2020
Great article Thankyou for composing and posting.