Getting motivated

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Any business is only as good as its staff. All your clinical skills are of limited use if the staff around you are unhappy and unmotivated. But how do you balance time spent motivating with time spent earning? By A.M. Walsh

A happy dental team means happy patients.
A happy dental team means happy patients.

Ignoring the energy and happiness level of your team is a high-risk approach. “It’s false economy,” says Anita Roubicek, a partner at Prime Practice Dental Management. “If you’re time poor, you don’t have enough time to recruit then retrain new staff.” Her company guides dentists who are concerned about improving their practice and retaining staff. “Everyone has some problems with staff, but if the problem is motivation, it’s often to do with leadership style. What can happen is a dentist will give staff a task but he or she is not aware of how to communicate effectively exactly what’s needed.”

Prime Practice runs leadership courses aimed at dentists looking for ways to tackle management problems—beginning with themselves. “When you realise it’s got a lot to do with you, you have a lot more control over the problem. It’s got to start with you. When you start with yourself and make the first shift, that puts you in a really good position.”

Dr Toni Surace, managing director of Momentum Management and a dentist with her own practice, also encourages dentists to become good role models. “You need to be a great leader—staff motivation comes from a leader who wants to change and show how he or she is willing to take the first step.”

Enrolling in a leadership course is a good start, but there are other ways to help staff perform more effectively. Says Surace: “Research shows that you can’t actually motivate someone, but you can remove the barriers to demotivation. So if you can make a safe, supportive environment, the opportunity for staff to motivate themselves increases.”

Roubicek agrees. “Staff want some kind of status. You’re not just a DA, you want to support the dentist to be successful. People want that sort of acknowledgement; they want to know how they relate to their job and how they contribute to the success of a practice. Most dental practices don’t have the opportunities of a large business where you can grow and develop and move up to the next role. You’re pretty limited where you can move to, so the more responsibility you give people in their job, the more engagement, the more motivated they are.”

How do you do this? A simple way is to start scheduling staff meetings and asking staff what it is they would like to see happening in the practice.

“We call them growth conferences,” says Surace. “They’re not staff appraisals, they’re one-on-one meetings to find out how staff are growing within the company and what they feel they want to do.”

“When you sit down with a team member, make a date for a follow-up conversation. It’s important that it’s not a ‘check-up’, but it’s seen as a ‘check-in’,” says Roubicek. “People aren’t going to change behaviour just from one meeting, especially if there’s the sense that there’ll be no follow-up. The focus should be on preventative not reactive approaches to problems. Keeping the lines of communication constantly open is a good way to make this happen.”

Taking action as a result of these meetings is equally as important. “There’s two ways to reward—extrinsically, which are things like bonuses and gifts, but you often find that the benefits are short-lived. Intrinsic motivators, like personal satisfaction and growth are much greater motivators,” says Surace. “Staff are usually very excited about getting more organisation into their practice. A lot of them just want to get a tea break, or a lunch break, or even finish work on time. They can see that getting efficient systems in place will help.”

Sometimes even the smallest shift in behaviour works, like remembering to say thankyou to staff. “Dentists can get so busy, they may forget to even thank their team,” she says. “At the end of a really busy day, I might go home and then send them a text saying thankyou. It makes a huge difference.”

You need to find out what motivates each person. The dentist may spend time and money taking courses to create the best cosmetic, implant or restorative practice, but what motivates you as a dentist is not necessarily going to motivate your receptionist or hygienist who may be spending just as many hours within the practice but without the same rewards.

“When staff are asked in our courses to write lists of what they want, money is never at the top. They might want a coffee machine or have more flexibility to cope with family commitments,” says Surace.

Roubicek adds: “Monetary reward is not the highest thing to motivate people. If I’m being paid fairly but I have a role where I’m respected and I like my colleagues, then that’s a much higher motivator.”

Offering more training might also be attractive to interested members of a team. “Sharing information and skills is a way to keep staff involved, rather than keeping it all to yourself,” she continues. “With practice accreditation a big part of business, you need to have good systems in play, staff need to know what to do. How do you motivate them? Let them know how much they contribute by acknowledging their strengths and furthering their skills.”

One thing not to do is to threaten or bully staff into working harder. “Fear is a short-term motivator,” says Roubicek. “People might do things under threat but it’s not sustainable. Nobody wants to work in a fearful environment.”

Keeping priorities such as staff morale in perspective can be an occupational hazard. “Dentists focus on the mouth and not very often do they get to look up and see what’s going on. They’re focusing on the detail not the big picture,” says Surace.

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