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Inside Dentistry
September 2018
Volume 14, Issue 9

Staff on the Mind?

A mindfulness approach to dental team management and engagement

Kelly M. Huston, DDS, FAGD

It is no surprise that dentists tend to be high achievers. In particular, general practice is an area in which dentists work hard in several disciplines every day. Although this competence and dedication are to be applauded, is it possible that being seen as "the fix-it person" at the office could be a limiting factor in your practice's success? Is it possible that, despite how good it feels to fix the problems that pop up all day, your behavior is holding back staff members from realizing their true potential? Is it possible that dental practice success involves more than a simple measure of team members completing tasks on a checklist on the way to excellence? Let's explore how subtle changes in mentality that result in less work for the dentist can be the key to greater profitability and a less hectic office culture.

Dentists have no doubt heard about large organizations that tout their workplace culture as a pivotal component to their success or read an article about a company's new mindfulness program to improve emotional intelligence across the organization. These are soft sciences, and many dentists dislike soft sciences. But when working with a team of dental professionals, dentists know that staff-related issues cannot always be solved in the same way that we solve problems for our patients. Albert Einstein once said that "no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." By this reasoning, if a problem is created by an entire team's inability to work together, then no one person on the team will be able to solve it by pure willpower alone.

Mindfulness and EQ

In 1995, the emotional intelligence movement came into the spotlight when Daniel Goleman released the book Emotional Intelligence. The business world quickly adopted its ideas, which spurred a bevy of research and writing on the topic. One of the main tenants of Emotional Intelligence is that IQ (ie, intelligence quotient) is a poor measure of how successful people are in our technological world and that the ability work with others in a positive way is a much better metric. The label EQ (ie, emotional quotient) has been adopted to be used interchangeably with emotional intelligence even though there is no specific, singular test or measure that has been identified to determine it.

In 1998, positive psychology became a recognized field of psychology. For many years, this area was mostly relegated to academia where it found its home on college campuses with soft science approaches. However, as studies began to produce meaningful data, mindfulness approaches became a recognized tool to improve quality of life and EQ. This lead to an explosion of mindfulness and EQ training from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon. The training has been cited as a best practice by Oprah and a corporate wellness initiative by many Fortune 500 companies.

Although this evidence should be enough, there is more. Dentists are businesses unto themselves; their success is directly related to their ability to influence their patients' ideas on health. The study of mindfulness and EQ has not been isolated to business interactions, human resources, and sales. Slowly, studies have been coming out that reveal the effects of mindfulness on healthcare providers' quality of life and rate of burnout. There is also information on how EQ affects patient outcomes. Specifically, patients rate their quality of care much higher when providers possess a higher degree of EQ.

Room for Improvement

Some great news from the world of positive psychology and emotional intelligence is that many individuals practice these skills without even knowing it. They are ingrained in how people have learned to cooperate with each other to become successful. In addition, they can be improved with practice. To improve EQ with their teams, there are several techniques with varying levels of supporting research and successfulness that dentists can use, including the following:

• Increase awareness. It all starts with the awareness that no one person can have all of the answers and do everything, so we must rely on others to perform their roles. This awareness allows emotionally intelligent dentists the space to step back from the problem and assess it from other angles that they may not have considered previously.

• Engage team members who deal with problem areas. In clinical situations, dentists do a great job of reaching out for help. They take CE courses or ask colleagues for assistance when there is a problem. However, when it comes to staff-related problems, dentists are rarely involved when the problem is actually occurring; thus, they do not fully understand everything that is going on when their staff is trying to rectify it. Use awareness of this limitation and ask team members what they know about the situation that is making it so challenging. Oftentimes, they will discover ways to fix the problem on their own, preventing you from making overly simplistic "fixes."

• Thank team members for solving problems you create. This has two benefits. First, team members are emotionally rewarded for positive behaviors, which creates a feedback loop for those who are looking for ways to receive more positive feedback. Second, it shows that the dentist has the emotional intelligence to understand that even he or she makes mistakes that need to be cleaned up. This helps team members realize that making mistakes is merely an unfortunate part of trying to do good things and gives them the freedom to make their own mistakes.

• Thank team members publically. This is mostly about spreading "warm fuzzies" across the office. Everyone likes receiving a compliment, but everyone loves receiving a complement in front of his or her colleagues. It doesn't just create a feedback loop for the person receiving the compliment, but also motivates the team member who witnessed the compliment to start looking for ways to earn similar acts of thanks.

• Ask team members how you can serve their needs. This role reversal is crucial to developing high performing employees. Without asking, how would dentists know if they have team members who need help striving to benefit the office in other ways? By being seen as someone who helps staff reach their goals, dentists can further develop an environment that promotes excellence in all aspects of the practice.

• Create checkpoints to reevaluate progress. Practices need to reevaluate periodically. For any initiative, there needs to be a period of awareness, self-reflection, and recalibration. This is the natural transition from end to beginning in any iteration cycle.

Simple Changes, Dramatic Impact

Unfortunately, as people try to strictly quantify and directly measure the effects of positive psychology and emotional intelligence, they may negatively impact the perception of its results. These are inherently soft measures. They must be measured broadly, if at all. Instead, focus on how engaged team members have become. Have their interactions with other team members and patients been more or less positive? What tools have been used to engage team members? Which of these tools come more naturally and which take more work?

It is easy to regard the conclusions of emotional intelligence and mindfulness research as overly simplistic and obvious. This points to its strength and weakness all at the same time. Although mindfulness doesn't take some superhuman skill or talent to implement, sometimes, it is the simple things, like brushing and flossing every day, that have the most dramatic impact on our lives. The hard part is the self-reflection and dedication to the process. So take a deep breath, step away from the grind for minute, and just ask yourself: are there one or two small changes that I can make today and during the next 3 months that could lead to a more authentic and meaningful interaction with my staff?

About the Author

Kelly M. Huston, DDS, FAGD, maintains a private practice in Ankeny, Iowa, and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry.

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