Ask a dentist what problems in the practice give them the most grief and you most often get the answer: dental team issues. In fact, trouble with team members can keep a practice leader up at night.

Think about it — how often have you woken during the night with a team member’s performance issue going through your head? You start thinking dark thoughts like, she hates me! or, He needs a therapist! or — worst of all--There is nothing I can do. I will just have to live with the problem until I sell the practice!

That last one, especially, is an example of “stinking thinking” because it is self-defeating. It is a perspective that does not give the leader any options to upgrade the employee’s performance, and it does not allow the team member the benefit of being coached to new levels of success.

Camera set up for dental photography
You have options when it comes to resolving team member performance issues.

But let's move past those dark thoughts that come at night and try to put team issues in a more positive and productive light. For those who really want to help, mentor, coach, and train team members toward continuous improvement, I have some good news. There are usually only seven reasons a team member struggles or experiences a performance shortfall.

And here's some even better news: only one of the seven is “unfixable,” and even that one can have an acceptable solution. In the chaos and confusion of helping someone who is struggling, it's nice to know there is a reason for the problem and that you have the tools to address it.

The Big 7 Dental Team Issues: A Hypothetical Case Study

Let's use an example — a fictional circumstance that could never really happen in your practice (ahem) — to go through those seven reasons a team member might be struggling.

Emily is your Financial Coordinator. She is organized, focused, and productive. She loves communicating with your patients during the treatment conference and has tremendous success in working the e-claims system. But when it comes to collection calls, she avoids the task, waiting until the last minute to get them done and experiencing little success. What is happening with Emily? Let's look at the seven possible reasons:

1. Lack of Task Clarity

Does Emily know the guidelines for collections? How many days is she supposed to wait before contacting about a missed payment? Does she have a “cheat sheet” of talking points and verbal skills to support her when making phone contacts? Does she have sample e-mail letters and online pay notices? Or have you just basically said to her, “Make calls, collect money,” and left her to her own devices? Most team members perform much better with precise guidelines and instructions, as well as supporting resources — especially for tasks that don't come naturally to them.

2. Lack of Task Priority

Is there a job description that lists all of Emily’s tasks and desired outcomes in priority order based on the practice's vision, goals, and strategies? In the absence of pre-set priorities, an individual will always default to what they are confident in (what they do best) as the priority. Emily loves patient interaction and processing insurance. Therefore, she will always do those things first.

3. Lack of Competence

I am not suggesting Emily is incompetent as a person! I am asking, does she have the requisite competence for the task? In other words, does she have the innate abilities, transferable skills, complete training, and practice to master the task she is being asked to perform? That is what creates competence, and it is the leader’s responsibility to make that happen.

4. Real or Perceived Obstacles

What is the elephant in the room? Whether real or perceived, an obstacle is an obstacle. If Emily thinks there is no time to make the calls — whether that is the reality or not — it is a concern that must be addressed before she can move on, and you can begin to solve the greater issue.

5. A Perceived Reward for Failure

There are two types of rewards for failure. The first involves someone else taking the monkey off a team member’s back so they no longer must worry about it. If you address Emily’s lack of collection calls by having you or another team member, take on the task — congratulations, you have rewarded failure!

The other type of reward for failure is a bit more delicate. People like attention – sometimes even when it isn't positive. So, if the only meaningful conversations you tend to have with your team are those of correction, then subconsciously your team might create situations that will need to be addressed. Emily, on some level, orchestrates the collections problem because it gets your attention, and she then feels noticed.

6. Lack of Performance Feedback

Mumbles, grumbles, or telepathic good wishes don't count. This ties in with the previous reason on our list. In many instances, a team member is given a task and gets no communication until there is a flaming disaster. If you want Emily to succeed in this task, catch her in the act of doing a good (or “almost good”) collection call and give her positive, immediate feedback. Often, a little encouragement and reinforcement go a long way in changing behaviors.

7. A Role/Person Mismatch

The great news is if you have reviewed reasons 1 through 6 above with Emily and she is still unsuccessful at collections calls, the mystery is solved: you have a role/person mismatch! This doesn't mean you have to terminate poor Emily. It may mean, however, that you must redefine a job description that is a win-win for both her and the practice. You won't just let her drop the responsibility, but you can give that task to someone else and give Emily a new responsibility in exchange that is more aligned with her abilities. That's what I mean when I say this reason is unfixable but not unsolvable.

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A team member's performance improvement is an improvement for the dental practice.

When you can help a dental team member who is struggling with something, starting with identifying which of the seven reasons outlined here are causing the problem, your practice will run at a much higher level because you will be able to coach team members to new levels of success. And you also will be able to get a better night’s sleep.

Amy Morgan is Vice President of Practice Growth Strategy at Spear, a member of Spear Resident Faculty, and former CEO of Pride Institute.