Team meeting around a table

Whether we like to admit it or not, we can only control what we say or do. We cannot control what those around us may hear or understand, let alone what others may think or feel about what we say. Therefore, our chances of miscommunication are much greater than we think.

In this spirit, I'd like to share a “top 12” list of things practice owners say or do that may inadvertently alienate someone from their team —

12 things dentists say that undermines psychological safety

Many of these are things that I have been guilty of within my own practice — which I only learned when I asked my team for their honest feedback.

Being too quick to say “no” to a new idea

There are so many things that cross our minds during any given day in the office—so much so that we may inadvertently detract a collaborator who approaches us with an important idea or suggestion. When we don't give ourselves enough time to listen and are too quick to say no, we can come across as if we just don't care for the opinion of others.

Looking at our phone or computer when people are talking to us

A modern-day curse is the difficulty many of us feel when we try to detach ourselves from our cell phones or computers—but being distracted by these devices during a conversation could easily be interpreted as lack of interest in what others are trying to communicate. Our devices may bring us closer to people who are geographically far away — but separates us from those who are geographically nearby.

Considering this insight may serve as a guideline to use technology mindfully. Focusing our attention on our phone during a conversation or a meeting is interpreted as a clear sign of disrespect and should be avoided at all costs.

Postponing or avoiding a conversation that's important to a team member

When a collaborator wants to communicate something important—and we come across as if we are deliberately postponing or avoiding this conversation—it's understandable that this can create the perception among team members that you don't have any interest in what others may be thinking.

This creates a distance between practice owners and team members. Setting periodic individual check-ins with our team members can help us mitigate this feeling that we are indifferent towards the opinions of others in our practice.

Dentist having team meeting

Talking too much during team meetings

Some leaders (like myself) end up talking too much during team meetings. Sure, you're the practice owner—but regardless of how important what we need to say may be, not allotting time for others to express themselves clearly represents a risk in our practices.

Perhaps one of the best quotes that frames this is from Pastor Andy Stanley, who said, “Leaders who don't listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” It's paramount we allot time in all team conversations so there is enough time for everyone to express themselves.

Mentioning a team member's flaws in front of other staff or a patient

There are few things more toxic for psychological safety than for individuals on your team to find out that others are talking behind their back. If this includes the person they report to, it can destroy trust completely. Gossip should be considered the most destructive communication strategy.

The best possible remedial for this is to implement a culture of continuous feedback. The more this is implemented, the less we need to go to a third party and “vent” about issues we face with our team.

Behaving as if you know it all

Leaders that claim to know everything are usually perceived as knowing very little. On the flipside, nothing can be more inspiring for a team than showing our own vulnerability and weaknesses, as this automatically inspires everyone around to step up their game and to potentially compensate for those shortcomings with their own skills and competencies.

Not accepting a personal error

Few things are more inspiring than hearing someone admitting when something went wrong—it represents the epitome of a growth mindset. On the flip side, when we fail to admit a personal error, we send a clear message of how others should behave.

Some time ago, a patient of mine shared with me a beautiful quote that had to do with the education of her kids, but it is applicable to most dental offices: “Our example becomes a silent order.” Often those around us see how we respond to every challenge and nuance in our practice. Our example continually become an order of how others should behave.

Not driving change.

Change is the only true constant—change in our society's behavioral patterns, lifestyle, and consumption. Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic has ostensibly amplified this rate of change.

Not being sensitive to these changes—and not promoting a continual evolution within our organization—can certainly make our team members wonder if the direction the practice is headed represents their best interests. Embracing and driving reasonable levels of change can also foster a perception of continual personal and professional growth.

Not encouraging team members to take risks.

Taking risks is the ultimate way of growing personally and professionally. If we only expect our team members to perform well-mastered tasks, we run a greater risk of team members feeling stagnant and not being challenged with new projects and growth opportunities.

Failing to set clear personal goals and job descriptions

Modern dental practices are complex organizations. This often means there are many moving parts with the potential to overwhelm and confuse team members who may feel they are tasked with responsibilities beyond their scope or job description. This could have a deleterious effect on drive and performance, as there is no clarity in their role.

In this scenario, periodic check-ins with team members—when redefining personal goals and job descriptions is encouraged—should help mitigate their frustration.

Not giving periodic feedback

On many levels, not knowing how contributions are perceived among the team is a lot like wearing a blindfold to work. It can easily lead members to feel more insecure of their performance—and therefore, a lower sense of psychological safety.

Feedback should be delivered holistically so both the positive and the negative aspects of a team member's performance can be thoroughly discussed, and professional and personal growth can be assessed. We cannot improve what we cannot measure, and the best way to do so is by giving and receiving periodic feedback.

Seen as being intolerant to different political views.

In today's unstable political landscape where politicians across the ideological spectrum work to polarize society, the dental office is not immune to having team members with opposing views. Suggesting otherwise is counterproductive and inappropriate in a modern healthcare organization where fostering ideological freedom should be a given.

I recently received feedback from one of our team members expressing that I come across as intolerant to political views that are different than mine. While I wanted to immediately push back against this accusation and argue that that this is not the case, the fact that this team member felt comfortable expressing this to me highlighted the relative psychological safety he feels to share this concern.

On the other hand, this also invited me to consider how I could alleviate his perception. As I noted at the beginning of this article, we are ultimately responsible for what we say—but we cannot be all responsible for what others understand. One way of avoiding these misunderstandings is to single out certain topics that should be avoided in the office, such as political preference, religion… and maybe soccer.

Learn to minimize miscommunication

To minimize the risk of being misunderstood, a solid set of principles that have been helpful in our practice stem from author Miguel Ruiz's iconic bestselling book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

The four agreements of personal freedom by Miguel Ruiz: Be impeccable with your word, don't take anything personally, don't make assumptions, always do your best

The more we integrate these agreements into our business culture, the slimmer our chances of miscommunicating and therefore potentially depriving the team of psychological safety.

Final thoughts

As you read this list, many of these scenarios may seem unfamiliar to you—but perhaps some of you also see how these situations plague your own practice.

Just as I did, I urge you to take some time to consider what this means for your team. And if you are truly dedicated to creating psychological safety (and success) in your practice, I'd recommend you embark on the same psychological safety “litmus test” as I did. It simply involves asking your team to disclose what they believe could change in the practice to improve psychological safety—and be ready to act on what you hear.

Difficult conversations with the dental practice team are as uncomfortable as they are necessary. Remember: Teams with high levels of psychological safety are consistently the more successful and effective.

Ricardo Mitrani, D.D.S., M.S.D., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.


Commenter's Profile Image Robin F.
November 8th, 2021
As a team member, this is an excellent post! Thanks for putting it out there.