7 Essential (non clinical) Steps for Sustainable Dental Team Success

Authors:  Fran Pangkis RDH and Shari Tastad RDH, BS

You’ve heard the expression: “Knowledge is power”. But is it really? Is it really the solution to the majority of our daily challenges?

Yes and no. By itself, knowledge is not power. Power comes from how and when knowledge is applied, and who applies it. And the true power is with the ‘who’ – the right person with the right perspective and right attitude.

 Let’s consider how this applies to a typical dental practice. How often does a dentist make changes to the ‘systems’ in their office, believing this is the way to solve problems. “If our systems are more efficient, our problems will be solved.”  

As a result of this thinking, doctors spend a lot of time and money updating and implementing their office systems, them sitting back and waiting for ‘things’ to change.

Do they? Probably not. Because the issue, more often than not, that needs to be changed, is the attitude of the people who are expected to use the system. Systems are only as good as the resourcefulness, creativity and commitment of the people who use them

Let’s take an in-depth look at the at the foundational components that are hallmarks of the successful business/dental practice, and how the right attitude – and right person –  affects each one.   

  1. Shared Vision/Shared Values
  2. The Right People on the Bus
  3. The Right People in the Right Seats on the Bus
  4. Communication
  5. Problem-Solving, Conflict Resolution
  6. Motivation
  7. Team Building 

1.  Shared vision/shared values

Shared Vision:

Do have a vision for your work life? If so, is it old, or have you exceeded or outgrown your original vision and need to update it for where you currently are, or for where you want to be heading?

Questions to ask to ensure your vision statement is clear and up-to-date:

  • Is it your vision statement or has it been hijacked by someone else?
  • Do you feel you have no control over the direction you are heading in, and are simply    following along behind your team and their visions and values?
  • Do you believe that you can, in fact, choose to be the master of your vision?
  • Do the people you surround yourself with share your vision with a positive attitude? Is everyone clear about where you are heading and why?

Shared Values:

People communicate with different styles (languages), however what keeps every relationship going and on-track is the common values that individuals share. Are your values clearly defined?

Questions to ask to ensure that values are clearly defined.

  • Do the people you work with have the same values you do?
  • Do they respect and acknowledge the values you hold dear?  
  • How do you find out what values each person brings to the table?

Values clarification exercise 

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, “Built to Last” and “How the Mighty Fall”,  believes that companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed, while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world. 

Once you have chosen and defined your own values, have your team do the same. Where is there common ground? What core values can you all agree to that will become the light that guides you to achieving your practice vision?

Consider each of these common values: respect, trust, honesty, integrity 

Most teams would consider these good values, and yet each person on the team may have a different way of defining that value. Does honesty mean the same to Person A as it does to Person B? By engaging your team in a conversation on how each person defines the value allows for a clear understanding of where each person is coming from.

Remember, it is important to suspend judgment if someone defines a value differently than everyone else. Use this as a learning exercise instead – a different and new way of looking at things, even though this isn’t always easy. In general, when someone/something agrees with what you hold true you value it, it feels right for you. On the other hand, when someone/something is not in agreement with what you hold true or correct, it’s easy to become judgmental.   

Also remember, values can change or shift depending on where someone is at a given point in time. Review yours and your team members’ values on a regular basis, at least once a year.


2.  The Right People on the Bus 

Do you have people on the bus? People who want to be on the same bus ride? Also ask yourself: 

  • Are you taking the uptown bus when the people on your bus want to go downtown?  
  • What kind of chaos is created when someone is on the wrong bus? 
  • Did you post the bus route clearly, before people got on the bus? 

Imagine standing on a street corner and getting on the first bus that comes along, just because it’s there! Then imagine staying on the bus, even though it may not be going in the right (your team member’s) direction!  Disruptions and complaints are inevitable, and no one is going to be happy with the direction the bus is going.   

  • Are you, as the bus driver, happy with where your bus is going (vision)? 
  • When you get tired of driving the bus, do hand the controls over to someone who can drive  the bus for you, and who knows the direction in which to head?  
  • When you’re tired, do you move to sit behind the designated driver, or do you abdicate control completely? Do you abandon the bus? Jump off? 

If you have the right people on the bus -- people who are clear about where the bus is heading, clear about the route you are going to take (systems) -- then you can take time off and let someone else steer the bus without worrying about it being hijacked!   

So how do you find the right people for your bus? People with similar values, positive attitudes, and developed emotional intelligence skills?

There are the traditional methods, of course: ads, temp agencies, friends, colleagues, existing employees. Once found, you begin the hiring process:

  • Interview
  • Skills assessment
  • Reference/background check (never leave this step out!)                                   

All of the above are the usual ways in which someone is invited to join the bus. Sometimes you’re lucky, you hit a home run, and other times you just can’t seem to get to first base! This is where we come to the ‘secret’ that great companies use to find the right people for their bus: assessments.

Assessments uncover the natural talents your potential bus rider will bring to the ride, and can also show the level of emotional intelligence (known as EQ) an individual has developed, and how their EQ will help them navigate the bus, not just when the ride is smooth, but when it is bumpy, too.

In their book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, authors Dr. Travis Bradberry and Jean Gervais found that customer service-oriented jobs (like those in a dental practice) required the highest level of EQ, especially empathy and service.  If you, as the business owner, are not assessing your team members EQ, you are very likely to find a problem with our next topic…


3.  Right people in the right seats on the bus 

Let’s recap: bus route (vision) - done! Clear directions (values) - done! GPS points - done! Right people on the bus - done! Now comes the next, equally important step: making sure you not only have the right people, but you have them in the right seats!


  • Do you use the natural talents and skills an individual possess to match the skills the job requires?
  • Do you have your people-oriented people in charge of the kind of interactions that demand good people skills?
  • Do you have your people who are naturally talented at details, who are methodical, who are systematic do the things on your bus that require these strengths? 

Having warm bodies on the bus only helps you achieve your vision for so long. Making sure the right people are in the right seats is critical if your journey is to be a successful one.


4.  Communicating

Sounds simple. Open your mouth, words come out and you are communicating. Yet, how often do we find it’s not quite that simple? That there are so many more pieces to the communication puzzle than we were aware of? And yet…

If we are not able to communicate where the bus is heading, how can we expect others to follow?

In a landmark 1970 study on communication, UCLA’s Albert Mehrabian found that words convey only 7% of a verbal message! The other 93% is a combination of tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%). So why, in a dental office particularly, do we so often concentrate on verbal scripts only, when they convey such a small percentage of our intended message? Why not spend more time working on the message as a whole? For example:

 What is your tone of voice? 

  • Loud or soft
  • Fast or slow
  • Harsh or friendly?


What is your body language saying?

  • Are you angry, or approachable?
  • Are your arms shut across your chest, or open?  
  • Do you look someone in the eyes, or focus elsewhere?
  • Are your shoulders hunched and rounded, or back and straight?

These are but a few of the gestures and intonations that can make or break a successful conversation. People are not mind readers, and thinking that others should know what you want, or what you are thinking, is unfair. Unless you hire through 1-800-Psychic, there’s a good chance that no one on your bus knows exactly what you want or are thinking unless you make it a priority  -- and have the communication skills -- to let them know.

Communicating your wants and requests in a manner that is positive, encouraging, clear and with commitment is key to achieving your vision.

For instance, how accessible are you to your partners on the bus? If they want to talk with you, do make time for them, or do you find reasons why you just can’t do it now, and then never get around to finding the time?

How well do all of the people on your bus communicate? What coaching and support do you offer them to learn how to be more effective communicators?

Clinical skills are key, of course, but truly successful dentistry is foundationally based on being an effective communicator, an effective listener. On learning how to ask clarifying questions to make sure your message is being received like you intended.


5.  Problem solving; resolving conflict

Problems happen! Things will go wrong. People will make mistakes. Systems will have flaws. You cannot avoid problems in your practice, but you can choose how to handle them when they arise. You can choose to waste your time focusing on what the problem is rather than what the solution to the problem is, or you can apply the 80/20 rule: spend 20% of your time identifying the problem and 80% on looking for the solution. Use the collective brain power of your team to help you problem solve, and then move on!

Resolving conflict

Problems and conflict go hand in hand – once one appears, the second is inevitable. And what do we tend to do? RUN! Run as if our lives depended on it. We attempt to avoid it (conflict) at all costs, but by doing so we unknowingly accommodate actions, behaviors, and words that are often at odds with our core values. 

When I ask a dentist or team member what made them choose dentistry as a profession, one of the most common answers is, “ I enjoy helping people.” What a wonderful reason to come to work every day!

And yet, everything in life has duality. Nothing is one-sided. The flip side to “I enjoy helping people” can be “And I don’t want them all to like me.” This basic concept is rooted in the fact that every human being has basic needs, which include to be:

  • trusted
  • respected
  • included (liked, loved)

The last need is so powerful that it leads us to avoid having any kind of conflict-based conversation. And yet, by not having productive conflict resolution processes in place conflict rarely, if ever, goes away on its own, leaving someone to “pay the price”.  

What if it’s your customer or patient who is paying the price? Or your referrals? What if it’s production? Or collections? The list goes on: morale, attitudes, enthusiasm, motivation, reputation?

Embrace the opportunity to go from conflict to clarity.

Conflict is just another way of saying this: someone’s story is waiting to be told.

As clinicians, we take courses in how to do a better prep, how to maximize our billing, how to schedule more efficiently, and a host of other courses that apply to the “hard” side of dentistry,  yet we do not give ourselves or our team the opportunity to learn the tools needed to embrace and deal with conflict from a healthy perspective.  


6. motivation

Motivating others is a tricky topic. The most common myth is that employees are motivated by money -- first, last and above all else.  

Studies prove this concept is untrue. Money is important, and it usually finds itself in the middle of the pack, but the most common factors motivate people are:

  • to be appreciated
  • to be thanked
  • to be respected

Do you know what motivates your team members, or do you make the common mistake of believing what motivates you will motivate them too?  

The surefire way to learn what motivates others is to learn how to ask questions, and then listen – really listen -- to the answers. Use those answers to ask more questions until you have truly discovered what it is that motivates the person you are speaking with. And remember, listen as much for what’s NOT being said, as what is being said.

Learning about what motivates someone is easy once you commit to making it a priority.


7.  team building

What does it mean to build a team? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just go to Home Depot and find the right parts, the right connectors, and a simple set of instructions that showed you how to put all the parts and pieces together? If only!  

Great teams do not just happen. They are created by vision, by bringing shared values together, by finding each person’s natural strengths, by understanding emotional intelligence and by being committed to the belief that an ideal team is possible.

Mastering clinical skills are important, of course. But they are not more important than your people and relationship-building skills if you truly desire to build a successful practice that will stand the test of time.