I have spoken with many practitioner-owners over the years and found that the philosophy of delegation in dentistry varies significantly from dentist to dentist.  

There are those who delegate almost everything, preferring to stay focused as much as possible on clinical matters. There are also those who avoid delegating even the most basic administrative tasks, like confirming patients (yes, I have actually seen that), because they prefer a hands-on approach. And then there is everything in between on the spectrum of delegation.

Of course, some things are always routinely delegated (and should be), such as instrument sterilization. But if you find yourself spending significant time on administrative details like payroll or ordering supplies, you’ve probably gone too far to the wrong end of the spectrum and are doing things that could be more efficiently dealt with by team members.

After all, as we well know, the clinician is only really productive when they are in the operatory. So it makes sense to be continually curious and use a discerning eye when evaluating the tasks you are spending time on.  

I understand that the ownership of practice comes with a great deal of emotional investment; no, others may not accomplish tasks with the same degree of passion as you would. But sometimes, being an effective leader means knowing when to let go. This does not mean that delegation should be completed without oversight — far from it, as this article will illustrate.  

When it comes to the delegation process, we need to ask ourselves if we have fully communicated the task to be delegated, how we expect the job to be accomplished, what processes need to be followed, and what support might be required. And, having verified that understanding, are we evaluating the results to improve continually? 

Camera set up for dental photography
Delegation in dentistry varies significantly from dentist to dentist.

Before we answer those questions and get deeper into the delegation process, let’s consider the following three questions, and their answers, that set the right context for this discussion:

What Are the Benefits of Delegation in Dentistry?  

1. Improved Productivity

Delegation can help to improve overall productivity by allowing individuals to focus on tasks they are best suited for and that require their specific skills and expertise. That’s important for the doctor, as I have noted, but it also allows for more efficient use of time and resources by distributing tasks among team members who can handle them most effectively. 

2. Employee Development

Delegation can help employees develop new skills and gain experience. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and motivation and greater employee engagement and retention. Trusting someone with an important duty is a great way to inspire them to become more engaged as a team member.

3. Improved Decision-Making

Delegation can lead to better decision-making involving multiple perspectives and ideas. By delegating tasks to individuals with different skills and knowledge, leaders can benefit from diverse viewpoints and expertise, leading to better outcomes and more innovative solutions. Team members who do more, know more — and can contribute more to brainstorming discussions.

Why Are Some Team Members Afraid to Step Up? 

1. Fear of Failure

Team members may be afraid to have new tasks delegated to them because they fear they will not be able to meet their doctor's or team's expectations, leading to feelings of inadequacy and failure. This fear may be compounded if the task is particularly challenging or if the employee needs more skills or resources to complete the task successfully. So be sure to give the right support and encouragement to anyone taking on something that may be outside their comfort zone at first. 

2. Lack of Autonomy

Some team members may fear delegation because they think it might limit their independence and decision-making power. They may feel that they are being micromanaged and that their doctor needs to trust them to complete the work independently. These team members need to be reassured that they are in fact being trusted at a higher level when more duties are delegated to them.

3. Perception of Workload

Team members may fear delegation because they feel it will increase their workload and stress levels. They may worry that additional responsibilities will interfere with their ability to complete their existing tasks and responsibilities, leading to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. 

What Keeps Leaders from Delegating Effectively? 

1. Lack of Trust

Leaders may only delegate effectively if they trust their team members to complete tasks to their standards. This lack of confidence can be due to various factors, including a lack of communication, feedback, or recognition, or a perception that team members need the necessary skills or experience to complete the task successfully.

2. Lack of Time

Leaders may also need more time to delegate tasks to their team members appropriately. This can be due to various factors, such as a heavy workload, competing priorities, or a lack of delegation skills or experience. The irony, of course, is that one of the best ways to relieve the feeling of being time-crunched is to delegate effectively.

3. Micromanagement

Some leaders may need help to delegate effectively because they can’t seem to help being overly involved in every aspect of a project or task, leading to micromanagement. This can stem from a desire for control or a lack of confidence in team members' abilities and can negatively affect team morale and productivity. 

The 8 Steps of Delegation

Given all these realities presented above, I offer a modified process developed by two of my mentors, Jenn Barley, and Karen Sullivan, from Kickstart Your Edge.  

The idea here is that delegation is a process with overarching steps, each of which includes details of the process. Think of it as a book outline, which is then turned into fleshed-out chapters.  

So what are those steps? We’ve broken them down into eight specific ones:

1. Communicate what you are delegating and requesting from the other person.

Clearly means clearly. That means the communication must be done formally and for mission-critical tasks in writing. Communicating in writing will force you to be as straightforward as possible. Remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” So rule number one is, make sure it takes place.

2. Provide context and relevance to the assignment.

Why is this important to the practice? How will this impact patient care? How will it affect the business of the practice? Why were they selected? The more context a team member has, the easier it is for them to engage with the task.

3. Confirm understanding.

This is one of the most critical steps, particularly for mission-critical tasks, and it is more about checking the leader’s ability to communicate than it is about what is expected of the team member. You want them to know you are assessing your own ability to share information by ensuring they understand what you have communicated to them. 

4. Communicate performance standards to set expectations.

“What can be measured can be improved.” That’s a great line from the author Peter Drucker. 

 After all, if we cannot communicate performance standards, how can we ascertain success or identify areas of improvement?  

5. Make sure the team member has enough authority to complete the task.

It’s hard for a team member to be effective with a delegated task if they are not given the proper authority to conduct it.

For example, if you want your manager to start completing payroll, they need access to the payroll system and the authority to submit for payment to the team. If you want your manager to start buying supplies for your breakroom, but you have mandated that you must approve all dollars spent, you’re back to micromanagement territory. At some point, you have to let go and trust.

6. Discuss the level of support needed to complete the task. What do they need?

Does the team member require additional training on an existing system or orientation with a new system or resource?  Will they need time to focus on the task without interruptions? Your job as a leader is to give them every chance to succeed.

7. Get buy-in and commitment from the team member. 

Once the above steps are completed, ask the following open-ended questions to help gauge commitment and understanding. 

  • What are you most excited about in completing this new task? 
  • What concerns might you have? 
  • How will you know you are successful? 
  • Let’s gauge my ability to communicate. What areas of understanding, resources, or execution remain unclear? 

8. Establish rewards and recognition, if applicable. 

This is not about everyone receiving a trophy but about appropriately acknowledging your team member’s new responsibility, which has lightened your load as the practice leader. The simple truth is, if you give someone more responsibility, you should compensate them accordingly.

I hope you have a fuller appreciation now of how effective delegation is critical for you as a clinician/leader to achieve your goals. An effective delegation process can increase productivity and efficiency, develop the skills and abilities of team members, reduce stress and workload, and improve overall practice performance and effectiveness. 

Martin Mendelson, D.D.S., C.P.C., E.L.I.-M.P., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.