There are few things as satisfying as being a part of a successful and well-aligned team. Maybe you’ve been on a terrific athletic squad that prevailed over a more talented but less coordinated team. Maybe you’ve connected with some incredible diversely talented partners in a work project and created an outcome that far exceeded everyone’s expectations. It may be just as likely that you’ve been in a group working on something that ended up being a nightmarish waste of time where you never came close to accomplishing the intended outcome.
Unfortunately, many practices look at the idea of teamwork as a fluffy concept that has little to do with success. Despite dentistry’s advances, creating health for your patients is something you can’t do by yourself. While we all generally accept that fact, many of our practices still have employees that don’t seem to want to work together as a team. The difference between working with a bunch of disparate employees and working with a well aligned team adds up critically.
Here are the five reasons that your ragtag group can’t team up to win, and what you can start to do about it:
Your values are not clear.
Few people know more about developing successful teams than John Wooden. His 40-year record as a coach is staggering. Starting at Dayton High school and on through his eventual tenure at UCLA, he won over 81% of the games he ever coached. He led UCLA to seven NCAA championships in consecutive years: 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973. That level of consistent success is not a result of “luck of the draw” talent on each and every team he coached.
While skill was important, it was only one of the values that Coach Wooden focused on to unite his team. The coach built a pyramid of values. Competitive greatness is on top, but loyalty, cooperation, and friendship are just as important as guides for what was important as they worked together.
Imagine if John Wooden would have simply screamed, “Score more points than the other team!!!” His career certainly would have been shorter and far less successful. If you are a dentist and your only values for your team are daily production and diagnostic quotas, you may force your way into mediocre success in the short run. However, you are going to practice for decades! Decide what’s important to you and inspire your team. For your practice to be successful for the long run, your team needs a filter for how to work together and with your patients. Core values add meaning to your group’s work and are likely more powerful than daily production quotas for practice success over the long haul.
You have no playbook
If you’ve ever been part of a pickup game in any sport, you know how it goes. A bunch of people show up and get thrown onto one team or another. Shirts and skins. You play a pretty disorganized couple of matches. Somebody wins, somebody loses. A few random people sprain this and twist that. Nobody cares particularly about the outcome. And as long as you didn’t lose your front tooth when the hairy sweaty guy elbowed you, everybody forgets about the outcome the next day.
When you don’t have solid business systems in your practice, every day at your office is basically a pickup game. Sure, everyone knows where the front door is and how to turn on the drill. But how well scripted is your support for your patient from their initial contact with your practice to their ultimate transformation to health? What about your well-designed systems for keeping them healthy over time? What about your internal systems?
Sometimes something as simple as the coffee station can turn coworkers into mortal enemies if there is not a good cleaning and restocking system to help everyone do their part. Disconnected employees will transform into a team when they learn how to do their part in a well-designed, intentional system, especially when that system is informed by your practice’s values. The sad part is that most practices have few (if any) systems, and wonder why they are not as successful as they want to be.
They don’t feel as if they are working on a common goal.
People team up for lots of reasons. Ultimately, it is because they can accomplish something together they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do as well alone. Unfortunately, what everyone is there to accomplish can get pretty confusing in a busy practice. Jerry is just there to have a job and a paycheck until his wife gets out of school. Sarah is debating whether she should even work because of the cost of daycare for her seven kids, while Nancy is there to meet her daily diagnostic quota of three crowns, and Dr. Jim wants everyone to work hard to meet the daily production goal so he can retire sooner than later.
Everyone is unique and comes to work with their own perspective, but that doesn’t mean you can’t craft a common goal that everyone can rally around. In your practice, you need to define what you are trying to accomplish on terms everyone can buy into. Increased profit for the owner is fine but it’s hard to put on the war paint for that each and every morning. Maybe it’s for each and every patient to have confidence in the beauty of their smile. Or maybe it’s changing people’s minds about how much of an impact a dental office can have on a patient’s life. Maybe it’s creating a greater level of health in your community. Make it your core purpose and build a team that is as passionate about it as you are.
You don’t face challenges and frustrations together
Adversity is a reality in any group effort that’s worth doing. From military combat to the business world to the athletic field, overcoming steep odds and tough situations together is the tie that truly binds people. When teams learn they can survive temporary setbacks and use it to inform how they can get better, they feel more empowered for the next battle. They learn they can solve problems together.
The most common reason this happens is because we have reinforced the behavior. Unfortunately, many of our employees are prone to falling apart when a challenge arises. Complaining, gossip, and toxic behavior are common. They boil over and employees nag the office manager or the dentist to punish the decided offender. The hierarchy kicks in, so you half-ass your way through a pep talk on an issue about which you don’t have first hand knowledge. You may pacify the mob, but you’ve also taken away your team’s courage to talk through challenges on their own. If given the chance, your team will learn how to stop pointing fingers and dig into the work of creating systems that will diminish the chance of the same problem occurring in the future.
A good coach doesn’t necessarily solve every challenge his team will come up against, but instead gives them the tools and skills and trust to work together to overcome adversity on their own.
You don’t practice
In the “good old days” of rusty instruments and anesthetic-free extractions, “practicing” meant honing your skills on the poor souls that wandered into your back alley barber shop. Although the “practice” description of our dental organizations lives on, the crude methods of improvement don’t have to.
Consistently great outcomes don’t happen by coincidence. They happen because your team is so well organized and coordinated that your care and support of the patient is delivered seamlessly, from the beginning of the experience to the end. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habits reinforces this concept as he describes Starbuck’s model for helping its team build mental habits so when intense situations arise, they know how to work with the customer to resolve it.
As described in a 2012 Fast Company article:
“As Starbucks planned its growth strategy in the ’90s, managers realized that employees regularly cracked under pressure. (Tears were common.) Starbucks implemented institutional habits for baristas, called the LATTE method: listen, acknowledge, take action, thank the customer, and explain why the problem occurred. Customer (and employee) satisfaction skyrocketed.”
My kid’s fourth-grade soccer team wins most of the games they play. Not coincidentally, my kid’s fourth-grade soccer team practices a great deal. They review drills and plays so they can execute during the game without thinking. They work on parts of their efforts that didn’t go so well in the last game and acknowledge those that did.
Unfortunately, most dental teams don’t get together and review how you provide care without patients present. If your practice is an eternal scrimmage, nothing is happening by design. If none of your work is informed by a feedback loop of constant improvement, how can you expect a different outcome than the one you have now? You’re probably reluctant because you’ll be paying your team for that time and not billing out a root canal. Consider that time an investment. The better you get at turning your employees into a team, the more they will support patients to complete health. Not only will your practice become a more fulfilling place to work, you’ll also realize the benefit on your practice’s bottom line.
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