Your workplace culture: how healthy is it?

workplace culture

A problem work culture within your practice could be taking a major toll, not just on staff morale and patient retention, but also on your finances. John Burfitt reports

When asked to define what workplace culture actually is, leadership consultant Gabrielle Dolan cuts straight to the chase. “Workplace culture is the combination of the values of your business and the behaviour of your team,” Dolan, author of the book Real Communication, explains. 

“More simply, some people sum up their workplace culture as, ‘it’s the way we roll’ or ‘it’s our way’.”

Establishing the values of the business and putting them in place so the practice team know what is expected within the workplace is essential. It’s then a matter of ensuring how those values are communicated as well as implemented. 

That, Dolan reveals, is the most common issue she confronts as a consultant when attempting to deal with what happens when a workplace culture has turned bad.

“A practice owner needs to know what it is they want from the team in terms of their behaviour and standards, and then consider how someone who operates with those values actually behaves,” she says.  “You can have all your values written up on a wall or on your coffee cups, but that means nothing if no-one acts upon them. One thing I do see occasionally is a company that espouses the importance of a work-life balance, but then the practice owners expect the staff to be there 16 hours a day. It’s just not congruent.”

When things go bad

Signs of a workplace culture that has turned bad are usually easy to spot, Dolan adds. “This is when you would like the culture of your business to be one way, and the reality is it’s nothing like that at all.” 

Among the top of the list of those red flags are such factors as high staff turnover, poor internal communication, a negative approach to work, constant high drama and a climate of dysfunction. 

What’s more, a toxic, hostile or combative workplace could be having a far-reaching impact across the business, not to mention taking a financial toll. It could be affecting the wellbeing of the team, influencing how patients respond to the practice and costing money if new staff are having to be constantly recruited.

“If you think patients do not pick up on what is going on within the team of your practice, then think again, as the mood of an unhappy workplace can be palpable,” dental industry consultant Julie Parker of Julie Parker Practice Success says. “Sensing something is wrong might be the reason why some patients—just like some members of the team—decide to move on.”

Making them right 

The onus is, ultimately, on the practice leadership to identify and fix the source of the issue. When undertaking such analysis, practice leaders may need to consider if their approach is, in fact, one of the main sources of the culture problem.

“If you think patients do not pick up on what is going on within the team of your practice, then think again, as the mood of an unhappy workplace can
be palpable.”

Julie Parker, Julie Parker Practice Success

“There’s an ancient proverb that states, ‘the fish rots from the head down’, and that is something that shows up again and again when examining the poor culture of a business,” leadership consultant and author Peter Shields says. Shields is the author of the new book, Leadership Alchemy.

“The business owner needs to look inwards or at least be open to feedback, to explore the ways they may actually be the reason this culture has not only emerged, but also has been unwittingly encouraged.”

One strategy Shields has used when working with clients is a particular comparison task. “If an issue is identified, this might be the perfect time for the practice owner to recall what their purpose was when they first started the business, and then look at how the present culture has emerged as a result. Doing that kind of comparison of then and now could be enlightening about what kind of culture the business has ended up with.”

Another common issue is when clear policies regarding values and standards are already in place, but they are bypassed or ignored. “I often hear comments like, ‘that’s our policy, but no-one ever follows it’, and that shows something is out of whack,” Dolan says. “That culture is so poor the team believe it is perfectly okay not to adhere to the practice values, with management that don’t follow through anyway.

“The owner and senior managers need to set an example by living up to the values of the business culture, so the rest of the team has a standard to follow. This needs to be a foundation of the way to run your business.”

Adds Julie Parker, “If values and procedures are in place and staff members are not adhering to them, this must be addressed. 

“If you are trying to correct a situation, then follow through and put into play a culture of feedback and direction. If you don’t, then you will just destroy all the trust you are trying to build up. It comes down to every staff member understanding what it takes to shift habitual behaviour into intentional behaviour.”

Attempting to correct the past to put a business on a better path takes time and a commitment to better processes. It also requires, Peter Shields adds, the owner and managers to adopt a clear, rational and realistic strategy for the future.

“A problem culture did not emerge in one day—it’s something that has been allowed to build up over a period of time, and correcting that will also take time,” he says. 

“The first step to change might be to open up new avenues of dialogue, so it allows far better communication. If there are signs something is wrong, then take action and do something about it as soon as you can, before it’s too late. By then, there might be nothing left to fix.” 

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