The Dental Team Challenge
4 Ways to Attract, Motivate, and Keep Your Team
In the US, along with the continued economic challenges of Covid-19, we are amid another challenge, a severe dental workforce shortage. According to a June 9, 2021 report from the ADA Health
Policy Institute, more than 80% of hiring dentists are having a very difficult time finding hygienists and dental assistants. https://www.ada.org/en/publications/ada-news/2021-
Additional data from a May poll from the ADA Health Policy Institute found that “35.8% of owner dentists are recruiting dental assistants, 28.8% are seeking dental hygienists, 26.5% are looking
to hire administrative staff, and 13.1% are in search of associate dentists — all four percentages representing a rise in recruitment since October 2020.” In talking with many of my dental
colleagues, I suspect that these percentages are even higher today. To maintain a productive practice and because of these alarming statistics, dentists need to step up their leadership and
communication skills to provide an attractive and desirable practice for their existing team members and to attract new members in the future.
Before outlining the four steps you can take to retain your team members, it’s important to understand why people leave their jobs. According to the article on Indeed.com entitled 16 Reasons
Employees Leave Their Jobs,
money was the number two reason. Other reasons employees gave for leaving their jobs included lack of challenge, poor management, lack of communication and training, not feeling valued, lack
of recognition, lack of follow-through, no feedback, and no vision for the future.
Presently, if you are personally dealing with staff turnover, you need to look at yourself, the present state of your practice, the makeup of existing team members, your leadership, your
management, and your communication skills. This self-examination will help you see your role with regards to staff turnover. Perhaps your expectations of your team are unclear. Perhaps you
aren’t doing annual performance reviews. Perhaps your team members are feeling unappreciated and overworked. The best way to discover why a person leaves your practice is to hold an exit
interview. These meetings, as difficult as they may be, are an opportunity for you to gain information to help you improve your practice and retain your current employees.
Here are four steps you can take to retain and motivate your dental team members:
- Offer a Competitive Salary
With the present shortage in the dental workforce, you need to pay your team members an hourly salary that is competitive for your area. If you are unsure if the wages you are offering are “in the
ballpark,” there are several free websites with salary surveys. Some of these websites include dentaleconomics.com, dentalpost.net, ada.org, forbes.com, salary.com and danb.com or the Dental
Assisting National Board. Many of the recruiting websites like indeed.com, glassdoor.com, ziprecruiter.com, also provide job salary data. Regardless of whether these stated salary numbers fit into
your budget, you need to find a way to offer a competitive salary.
Over the years, when team members talked about their pay, I noticed that most of them focused solely on their hourly wage, knowing little about the value on their benefits. As practice owners, we
all know the high cost and value of these benefits. A great way to help your team members see the value of their benefits is to annually provide a “Summary of Benefits Statement.” On that one-
sheet, along with the hourly salary, clearly spell out their total compensation package by listing the benefits you offer, to both full-time and to part-time employees. In your list of benefits, include
items such as paid time off, paid holidays, uniform expenses and laundry costs, insurance benefits, payroll taxes, paid continuing education, association dues, and retirement plans. Assigning a
dollar amount to each of these benefits helps your employees see the total value of their compensation package. Over the years, my team members were often surprised by “the numbers” on these
statements, often saying, “I had no idea how much these were worth.”
- Communicate Clearly- Orally and in Writing
As mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons people quit their jobs is due to poor leadership and poor communication in dental offices. Examples of poor communication include things like
unclear expectations, no job descriptions, and overall confusion, due to lack of protocols, lack of praise and appreciation, no feedback on job performance, and team disharmony.
Psychologically, people want to be part of something great, with an organization that is well-run, and one with a clearly defined mission. In contrast, a practice that solely focuses on “making
money” doesn’t cut it when it comes to retaining team members. A great way to communicate the higher purpose of your practice to your team is to have a written mission and vision statement,
one that you espouse, and one that you live out. Empty platitudes or “framed words hung on the wall” do nothing to build team loyalty and trust. However, authentically living out your mission,
and defining the shared values with your team, will foster a sense of personal belonging, build harmony, and create a sense of community. Some of your espoused values might include attributes
like friendliness, timeliness, cleanliness, clinical excellence, honest communication, a patient focus, and attention to detail, to name a few.
In addition to being part of a purpose-driven practice, your team members also want to know what is expected of them. The best and easiest way to clearly communicate your expectations is with
written detailed job descriptions. In my office, each team member had two job descriptions. The first one was an “all hands” one-page document that outlined the general expectations for
everyone. The second one was specific and outlined the duties for each individual role, the front desk administrators, the dental hygienists, and the dental assistants. When I created the first “All
Hands” job description, I sought the collective input of my entire team. Together, we wrote this document during a couple of our weekly team meetings. As the team worked through this project,
essentially, they themselves defined their behavioral norms. To my delight and my surprise, this process turned out to be a great team building exercise, one that brought them closer together.
Almost immediately, they worked better together, they helped each other out more, and were kinder to one another. Months later, when situations arose such as tardiness, or disagreements over
job responsibilities, I saw them refer to these job descriptions. As the leader, I stayed out of the way and watched with delight as they held each other accountable and resolved their situations with
the help of the “All Hands” job description, or “the one that they all had agreed upon.”
Other written communication plans you can use to help build your team include written systems for effective morning huddles, a structure for productive team meetings, and protocols to solve
problems and resolve conflicts. When deciding which systems to create first, start with ones that will help you accomplish your goals, and ones that will help you and your team work together more
efficiently, harmoniously, and productively. Repeatedly, studies prove that a happier teams are more productive teams.
Along with your written communication, how you communicate verbally is as equally important. It’s imperative that you tell your team members what you expect of them. Never assume they know
what you expect of them. Specifically verbalize your needs and desires. You’ll be amazed how this step alone will reduce gossip, minimize negative assumptions, and lessen “the guessing game.”
In addition, when appropriate, praise and recognize each team member individually and specifically, especially when you notice them doing something extraordinary. “I saw how you pitched in
and helped us clean our treatment room when we were running behind schedule. I loved how you were able to help Mr. Jones better understand his payment responsibilities. The empathy you
showed Mrs. Smith when she shared the story about losing her husband showed great sensitivity, compassion, and love.” In contrast to that, when a team member does something that bothers
you, it’s essential that you address it immediately and give them feedback. A great way to do that is to share your observations of their behavior, the negative feelings this caused you, what you
need from them, and lastly, your expectations. You make a request and tell them what you need them to do. You can conclude your feedback with an encouraging and simple nineteen-word
phrase “I am giving you these comments because I know that you can reach them. (Coyle, D.,2018, The Culture Code, p.56).
- Be Enthusiastic, Pleasant, and Positive
Being the leader of your practice, you need to model the attitudes and behavior you desire from your team. A powerful way to keep your employees engaged and happy is to be enthusiastic and
positive yourself. Are you the first one to arrive at the office in the morning? Do you greet your employees with a cheerful “Good Morning?” At the end of the day, do you thank them for their hard
work and wish them a pleasant evening? Using social graces like please, thank you, you’re welcome, or good morning, are verbal “belonging cues” that show your team that you respect and care
about them. Having a positive workspace, as well as being enthusiastic and positive yourself, creates positive energy that builds team morale.
I think we would all agree that dentistry is a demanding and stressful profession. And because we are all human, I’m sure there have been times when perhaps, you may have “blown it,” lost your
cool, and said things to your team you should not have said. If this has happened to you, the best thing for you to do is to stop, and sincerely apologize to you team. Years ago, I blew up at my
team, for something that today, I cannot even remember. However, I do remember that I immediately stopped, called them all into the staff room, apologized to them, and asked each of them for
their forgiveness. What began as a very “heavy moment” turned into something much lighter as the team replied, “Yeah, you sure blew it that time.” The next morning, I brought them two half-
pound bags of Dove chocolates, one milk, and the other dark. Over the years, I was always amazed at the healing power of chocolate!
- Be Authentic and Value Them
Your leadership is a key component for keeping team members. Unfortunately, dental school does not adequately prepare you to be a leader. As you lead your team, it is important that you are
authentic with your actions. Behaviorally, you act ethically, with integrity, and model the qualities you expect from them. As James Kouzes says in his book The Leadership Challenge, “D W Y S Y
W D or do what you say you will do.” (Kouzes, J.,2002, The Leadership Challenge, p.38). It’s essential that you are always honest and always follow through on your promises.
Along with being honest, you want to commit yourself to excellence, not only with your clinical dentistry, but also with your management, and with your communication. By dedicating yourself to
excellence, you earn the right to ask your team to do the same. In managing the practice numbers, make sure that financially you are taking care of your team, especially before you spend money
on new equipment or leasehold improvements. I have a dentist friend who years ago, hadn’t raised his teams’ wages in three years, and then decided to spend thousands of dollars on new
equipment. That “out-of-the-blue” decision to redo two treatment rooms left the staff feeling undervalued and unappreciated; a few of them left the practice because of that purchase decision.
Always make sure you show your team how much you value them. Try to get to know them on a personal level and be sensitive to their needs outside of the office. With the pandemic still raging,
many people are struggling with their mental health. As the leader of your practice, it’s important that you regularly check-in with your team members, be a good listener, and assess their well-
being. Many people are having a difficult time balancing their personal lives, their family lives, and their jobs. In the past, perhaps you only hired employees who could work from 8 am to 5 pm.
Perhaps, now is the time to get creative with your hiring. Although it may not be ideal, perhaps “job sharing” might be a way to help people better balance their schedules and stay employed.
Perhaps you could be flexible in your scheduling, allowing members to come to work early, and leave early at the end of the workday. Doing these things may open doors for new hires.
What are some other ways you can you show your team that you value them? Seek their input when it comes to making certain decisions in the practice. Allow each team member to use their gifts
and talents, as they work together to solve common practice problems like broken appointments, meeting daily goals, clinical procedures, or dental supply management, to name a few. Be a good
manager and delegate responsibilities whenever possible. Along with this, allow your team to make mistakes and learn from them. Regularly, seek their input with regards to their individual roles.
Ask them what they like about their present jobs, what new tasks they’d like to perform, and in what areas they would like to “grow.”
Lastly, do all you can to foster a “family atmosphere.” I recommend that you hold team outings two to three times a year. You could surprise them with bagels some mornings or take them out to
lunch or dine on “takeout” food during a team meeting. Other ideas might include writing a personalized note in their holiday card or giving them a gift card to their local supermarket the week
before the Thanksgiving holiday. Use your imagination and come up with your own list of ideas to show your team that you value them. Whatever you do, make sure you have fun. Always
remember, “it’s the little things mean a lot!”
Putting it All Together
If you want to retain your team members during these challenging times and in the days ahead, first examine how you are treating them now. Think about the different ways you can show your
team how much you appreciate them. Today, with good talent being difficult to find, do all you can to help your existing team members succeed and most importantly, feel valued. Create a practice
that has a family atmosphere, one that is fun and one they will want to be a part of. Lastly, be sure to give them lots of reasons to feel that, by far, your office is the best place for them to work.
Dr. Robert Maguire DDS, MASCL is a dental speaker, coach, practice consultant, and
DISC trainer, passionate about leadership and communication. If you’d like more
information about Dr. Maguire and how he can help you and your team communicate
better, visit https://www.thefulfillment.coach/ or email him