Positive cultures

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Positive workplace cultureCreating a happy place to work is linked with improved productivity and financial stability, writes Angela Tufvesson. Here’s how to foster a positive culture.

The average Australian employee is demotivated and disengaged at work, and unlikely to recommend their organisation’s products and services, according to a recent survey. The 2015 State of Employee Engagement in Australia report found a negative workplace culture, characterised by poor leadership, lack of perceived employee value and low achievement recognition, often lies at the root of the problem.

These findings aren’t limited to big corporations. Further research by Microsoft reveals seven out of 10 small and medium-sized enterprises, like dental practices, are failing to reach their full potential because their workplace culture is stifling innovative ideas.

Whether you’ve attempted to cultivate it or not, your practice has a workplace culture. It’s in your personality, leadership style, values, systems and behaviours. A positive workplace culture has the power to boost productivity and improve financial stability, while a negative workplace culture can, unsurprisingly, achieve quite the opposite.

“Workplace culture is the same everywhere—it’s the same for dentists as it is for big companies,” says Margaret Harrison, director of Our HR Company. “If you don’t have a positive workplace culture it’s impossible to be productive and profitable.

“In a dental practice, the benefits are better customer service, staff who want to keep up with their skills and new technologies, and less absenteeism and staff turnover—which, in a small practice, is difficult to manage. You’ll also benefit from higher productivity where people are coming to work at the right time, working while they’re there and are happy to do so, and a feeling of energy and proficiency in the practice.”

Most importantly, having happy and engaged staff members is a crucial element of attracting new patients and holding onto regulars, says Geoff Parkes, director of the Australian College of Dental Education.

“A positive culture is picked up on by the patients, so it will impact on the success of the practice,” he says. “People won’t want to go back to a practice if they don’t feel comfortable, or if they think the place doesn’t feel right. If the staff aren’t communicating properly, if they’re snappy or the dentist has to ask three times for something, it can indicate to patients that something isn’t quite right.”

Having spent their university years training in the mechanics of healthy teeth rather than staff management, Parkes says many practice owners are ill-prepared for this aspect of running a business. “A lot of practices just go along without thinking it’s something they need to worry about or try to improve,” he says.

But the good news is workplace psychologist Ellen Jackson, from Potential Psychology Services, says repairing a damaged culture is easier and less time-consuming than you might imagine.

“Promoting a positive workplace culture is not that difficult, but businesses forget to do it because we get into a routine of the day-to-day tasks and forget to acknowledge the people,” she says.

Lead by example

“All business owners need to acknowledge that the culture of the organisation is driven by them,” says Jackson. “You create the culture, so if it’s negative and there’s high turnover, distrust or conflict, then it’s most likely something you are doing in terms of how you’re interacting—or not—with staff.”

Jackson says practice owners must model the behaviours they want staff to adopt. If you want staff to communicate with each other well—accept constructive criticism and show initiative—you’ll need to do the same. And contrary to popular perception, Jackson says people want to do the right thing and be engaged, but it’s up to the boss to show them how.

Employ the right people

“The absolute number one thing to do is employ the right people,” says Parkes. “Recruit on values and work ethic and construct your recruitment process around that, not necessarily how much direct experience someone has.

“Typically what we see, particularly for dental assistants, junior dentists and receptionists, is practice owners hire people with experience because they think it’s the easiest method, as people will be up to speed already and don’t need to be trained.”

Instead, he suggests hiring staff that fit in with the culture you have—or are trying to create—and are willing to stay back half an hour with a difficult patient or cover for another team member with a sick child without complaint.

“They’re the sort of things that provide a lot more value to a practice than an extra year’s experience,” says Parkes.

Treat people like people

Paying attention to the small details of people’s lives helps to promote loyalty and friendship between employer and employee, especially in small businesses. “In order for a practice owner to lead they have to share their life, not just their work, and they also need to learn about their employees’ lives—their partners, pets, where their kids go to school—and show interest in them as a person,” says Harrison.

Staff social gatherings can also help to foster good relationships, but Harrison says people value time far more than expensive gifts. “It can be as simple as putting on a lunch for the staff,” she says. “It’s not about money—it’s about the little things that matter in everybody’s lives that create a really positive culture.”

Reward good performance

Acknowledging staff members’ good work is a classic example of positive reinforcement—and at the very least makes people feel happy.

“It’s important to value the contributions of all members of staff, regardless of their position,” says Harrison.

“A reward can be something like saying, ‘Wasn’t that a difficult patient? We did such a good job’. If there was a goal to increase the practice client base by, say, 10 per cent over the year and it’s achieved, celebrate it as a team. Again, rewards don’t have to be about money—it’s just about acknowledging a job well done.”

Managing individual performance is also vital, especially when it comes to underperforming staff. “If you have a team of five people and one is really lagging behind—doesn’t come in on time, always wants to leave early and checks the internet all the time—it’s noticed by everyone,” says Harrison. “If poor performance is managed and called out, it will be well appreciated by the whole team. If it’s not, it’s a very quick way to kill the culture of a small team.”

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