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Inside Dentistry
April 2011
Volume 7, Issue 4

Learning to Delegate Effectively

The successful distribution of work across the enterprise requires a new approach for many dentists.

By Peter Gopal, PhD

The inability to delegate prevents many dentists from achieving and sustaining a higher level of production, and contributes to the burnout of many clinicians. Effective delegation reduces workload, frees up dentists to do more of what they enjoy, builds trust and rapport among the staff, and improves morale. Still, many dentists do not delegate as much as they should.

The Biggest Barrier to Delegation

When asked why they do not delegate more often, many dentists claim they are not comfortable passing on responsibility, or say that it is often easier to complete tasks themselves. When pressed further, some dentists say that their employees lack competence or experience, and cannot be trusted to do the job right. This type of thinking is the biggest barrier to effective delegation, and this outlook stems from not knowing how to delegate correctly.

Dentists who have not had much success in delegating make the same mistakes. They are too intrusive, demanding, and nitpicky, causing employees to stay in their comfort zones and avoid taking responsibility for fear of being rebuked. Or, dentists hand over the entire job to employees, expecting them to figure things out for themselves. These employees find themselves totally unprepared for the job at hand, and fall prey to their own inexperience and a lack of guidance.

There are, however, ways to steer clear of these extreme situations. The process starts with recognizing what delegation is not.

What Delegation Is Not

Delegation is not just assigning tasks or dumping work on others. If boundaries, expectations, and controls are not set, this is abdication of responsibility. On the other hand, dentists who find themselves constantly communicating with employees, frequently checking their work, and providing input on every minute detail of the task are simply micromanaging. Delegation is neither abdication nor micromanagement. Effective delegation requires striking a balance between these two extremes.

Effective Delegation

Delegation is the transfer of responsibility to an employee for a particular area of work. Depending upon the employee’s capabilities and experience, and the doctor’s confidence in the employee, the transfer of responsibility may be partial or full, gradual, or immediate. Effective delegation involves several steps, outlined below.

Advance Preparation

Before delegating, the dentist must take the time to define the activity to be delegated, to whom it should be delegated, what assistance the chosen employee might need, and what degree of autonomy is appropriate for this employee.

The following issues should be considered before passing responsibility on to an employee:

• How is this work currently being done, and by whom?

• With whom will the employee be interacting?

• Does the employee have the capability to do this work?

• What is the expected result?

Conference with the Employee

A private meeting with the employee should take place, with the objective to explain why this work is being delegated, provide clarity on what is expected, get agreement that the employee wants to take on this responsibility, and figure out what level of support will be needed. The initial conversation with the employee should begin with telling the employee why this responsibility is being delegated, and how it will be good for the employee and for the practice.

The area of responsibility should be discussed in a collaborative way, and the employee should be encouraged to provide input. The employee should be asked open-ended questions in an effort to get their thoughts about taking on this responsibility. Employees should not be coerced into taking on responsibility. If an employee does not feel up to the task, this is the time for him or her to share any concerns.

Define Results, Priorities, and Deadlines

Once the employee agrees to take the responsibility, the expected results must be clearly defined. Benchmarks, quality standards, and the project’s priority relative to other work should be discussed and agreed upon, and deadlines must be set. The deadline must be realistic, and should account for the employee’s other commitments.

Define Extent of Autonomy

Most dentists ignore this critical aspect. The dentist has to figure out how much confidence he or she has in this individual, and how much authority the practice leader is comfortable giving him or her.

At one extreme is the situation where the dentist completely trusts an employee’s ability to do the job well, and gives that employee full autonomy. Essentially, the worker is given the job, and reports back to the dentist when the job is completed. The employee is experienced, and has the necessary skills and work ethic. This is easy, but is rarely the case.

At the other end of the spectrum is the situation where the dentist has little confidence in the individual. In this case, the dentist agrees to monitor progress and check the quality of the work at regular intervals. In essence, the employee starts out at a low involvement level, and is given additional autonomy as he or she demonstrates competence and proficiency.

Most real-world clinical practice situations will fall somewhere in between these two extremes. In most instances, the clinician has moderate confidence in the employee’s ability. The employee may have a variety of skills, but not all the skills necessary for this particular task. This employee must be granted a high degree of autonomy in areas where he or she has the requisite skills and experience, but must be managed closely in areas where he or she lacks ability and confidence.

For example, a dentist asks a dental assistant to take on the responsibility of ordering and procuring supplies. This employee has a good understanding of products used in the office, and the dentist has confidence in his or her ability to check inventory. The dentist’s concern is that the employee may not be sensitive to cost. So, the dentist asks the employee to put together a list of required supplies along with unit prices, but tells the employee to check in regarding quantities.

As the employee gains experience, he or she can prepare the entire order in a way that meets the practice’s monthly budget. The dentist’s work will be reduced to inspecting the order sheet and making any changes.

Follow-Up Support

Follow-up with the employee is necessary to ensure that things are going well, and that the desired results are being achieved. The dentist should ask the employee how he or she is doing, and if more support is needed. The dentist must help the employee develop the skills necessary to get the job done, and arrange for outside training and development if needed. Providing specific, detailed feedback will help the employee improve in these areas. The dentist must avoid prescribing exactly how the work should be completed. The employee must have some latitude in figuring out how to achieve the end results. As employees demonstrate increased levels of competence, they should be given more autonomy in their work.


Learning to effectively delegate is a step toward making a dental practice more productive. Employees will become more independent and capable, which frees the dentist to focus on higher leverage activities. It is a win-win situation.

About the Author

Peter Gopal, PhD | Dr. Gopal is the president of Visionary Management, a dental consulting firm based in Pennsylvania.

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