Making teamwork work

A tight-knit team that works together achieves the best outcome for both patients and the business's bottom line.
A tight-knit team that works together achieves the best outcome for both patients and the business’s bottom line.

Team harmony is essential for business success but a high-performing team requires regular management. Nicole Szollos shares advice from the experts

Good team cohesion, where staff are aligned and united, is necessary for optimal business performance. This is particularly so in a small business where team members interact with customers. In dentistry, a tight-knit team that works well together achieves the best outcomes for both patients and the business’s bottom line.

“Patients can tell if the practice runs well from when they walk through the door and this is especially important in a business where the customer can be nervous,” says Pam McKean, director of AB Dental Employment Agency.

At its foundation, a cohesive team has good communication skills and aligned goals, and works together to make the best decisions and create a smooth patient experience.

“It’s important that everyone in the team has a common goal and shares the same values. This results in a good experience for the customer, and flows to repeat business and referrals-a good commercial outcome for the business,” says Geoff Parkes, director from the management consultancy firm, Dental Advantage Consulting Group (DACG). “Conversely, if there is a weak link in the chain, one negative experience is enough for a patient not to come back and consequently, the business will suffer commercially.”

But while the commercial benefits of having a tight team are clear, it doesn’t always translate into reality. For many practice owners, running the non-clinical aspects of their business can be a case of trial and error, particularly when first starting out. If the dentist is not trained in running a small business-including managing staff-it can impact negatively on the business.

Skills aside, according to Parkes a good practice manager or principal dentist should be immediately aware on a day-to-day basis of any dysfunction occurring in their business. Any problems with systems, stock ordering or patient bookings should be an obvious trigger, he says, and a sign that they need to talk to staff immediately to uncover if it was a one-off mistake or a deeper issue with staff attitude. If the problem stems from a fragmented team, further investigation is necessary.

Systems assessment

To help create a professional and calm work environment, assess the processes and systems in place and check that team members clearly understand their role within the practice. A patient flow process beginning when the patient arrives at the surgery, can be an effective tool as it ensures staff members know their responsibilities and provide a consistent level of service. McKean says implementing a patient flow process gives staff clear direction and creates a positive patient experience.

Setting expectations with staff is also important; when the business’s vision and strategy is understood and values are aligned, the team can work towards common goals. “Dentists need to be really clear of their expectations with their staff-everyone needs to be on the same page,” says Parkes. Importantly, the team concept applies to everyone-dentists included-and each individual must be accountable for their behaviour. A performance management strategy with regular staff performance reviews is one method to ensure open lines of communication between staff members and clear expectations are being set.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-10-at-11.29.18-amWhen cracks appear

If a team has become fragmented due to negative morale, it’s vital to understand the underlying cause. While there are many variables, some common issues include low staff satisfaction and feeling undervalued, mismatched culture fit among team members, lack of clear expectations set, or the behaviour of the dentist themselves. “The practice owner is a leader,” says Parkes, “and often teams break down without good leadership. You have to be really honest with yourself about what the cause of the trouble is, as it may be you.”

Solutions need to be practical and specific to the problem. If disengagement is being caused by dissatisfaction with salary, re-evaluate staff rewards and conduct pay reviews across the team. If the issue is isolated to one staff member, a performance management strategy introduces a formal structure to help resolve differences, bridge skills gaps or move them on. If employee disillusionment is being caused by misaligned expectations or values, a team-building day can provide a forum to communicate openly and help the team reach a united front.

Team strengthening

To be most effective, a team-building day should focus on addressing and fixing problems as the primary goal, with the social element as secondary. Among its services, DACG helps practice owners run a Staff Harmony Day. The consultancy works directly with the practice owner to conduct an analysis of the business and identify where improvement is needed. The content of the Staff Harmony Day is then created against a commercial framework.

“Typically, an issue with staff is the trigger for a Staff Harmony Day, but once we get into the analysis, we often find an underlying problem that needs to be addressed,” says Parkes. “Sometimes it’s about the dentist’s behaviour or leadership style, and this can often be a bit of a surprise to them.”

Parkes’s advice to practice owners is to take a good look at the entire business, including their own position, and be authentic and honest, focused on running the best practice they can. He believes a shift in dentists’ thinking is required, since it is now harder to set up and operate a profitable practice and the market is more competitive. “Dentists can’t afford to get it wrong in their practice; there is a lot more pressure to get the business aspects right,” he says.

McKean agrees; “There is more customer focus in dentistry than 15 years ago due to more competition and the need to have a point of difference. If patients are anxious, it makes all the difference if there is that confidence among staff when they walk in.”

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