14 Dec 2015  •  Practice Management, HR & Employment Law  •  7min read By  • Sheila Scott

How to Deal With Difficult People in Your Dental Practice Team – 5 easy steps

Figuring out how to deal with difficult people in your dental practice team and difficult situations can be a real headache and cause friction between practice owners and staff. Sheila Scott, leading dental business consultant, shares how you can reduce the pain and maintain harmony with your team in 5 easy steps.

Tracy might be your best nurse. But she has been late three times in the last month. She’s normally such a star in the practice; works hard; is never in a rush to go home; is great with patients. However, you’re aware that the rest of the team are beginning to resent having to get her surgery ready for her and they get grumpy and irritable for the rest of the session after the rush around. You’re also a bit stressed thinking about having to organise cover, although when she turned up, you were so relieved…

It’s very tempting to just carry on; hope the tensions disappear – and hope the dirty looks, snide comments from team members and your pointed comment about her watch battery, serve to encourage her to ‘buck up’ in future.

‘If she does it again’ you think…

This scenario is played out every day in dental practices across the land. The names may change, and the range of misdemeanours and consequences are wide and varied. Unfortunately, the least effective, but the most frequently used management technique is… avoidance!

[blockquote cite=”Sheila Scott” type=”center”]Focus your discussion on the need to solve the problem rather than the need to allocate blame[/blockquote]

1)      Avoid festering issues

Please resist the temptation to avoid dealing with issues. Your team member will not suddenly read your mind or understand what’s wrong unless you tell her – and as an employer, or employer’s representative (manager), you have an ethical and legal responsibility to tell employees exactly what you expect of them and then to help them deliver the standards you expect. Many principals and managers dread these conversations though – mainly because they fear ‘upsetting’ the team member or team atmosphere again or because of time constraints. Yet those who do tackle problem behaviours immediately, fairly and in an open nurturing way, achieve better team atmospheres and better team performance.

2)      Deal with the problem

Use a simple three-step communications framework to keep the emotion (blame/aggression) out of your manner and reduce the need for self-protectiveness in your team member (deflection/sulking/aggression).

Focus your discussion on the need to solve the problem rather than the need to allocate blame:

1. Be very specific about what the problem was. The more specific you are, the less chance there is of misunderstanding or denial. Being specific about what happened also helps to avoid any emotional interpretations (e.g. you just don’t like me, or you’re getting at me because of something else you don’t like about me).

“I notice you’ve arrived 15 minutes late three times in the last three weeks.”

2. Explain the impact of the behaviour – this underlines how important the behaviour is:

“That’s a problem because it’s not fair on the rest of the team when they have to rush around covering for you.” Or…

“That’s a problem because I get very stressed when I think I might need to organise cover for the rest of the day, and that’s not good for patients/the team when I’m not really concentrating 100% on them.”

3. Then ask a question to start the discussion on how to solve the problem, or to help your team member come up with a solution that will be right for them.

“What in particular is causing the problem at the moment?” Or…

“What can you do to avoid this happening again?”

3)      Issue questions not demands

When you do tackle issues, the easiest thing to do is to tell people just what they should do. This is quick and comfortable – for the teller. For the team member on the receiving end it can be uncomfortable and they can feel pushed into a corner. There is often a ‘whatever’ response, and a verbal agreement at the same time as a private resolution to do no such thing! We’ve all been in these situations.

So it is much better to focus on the specific problem and its impact, and then ask questions about why your team member is behaving in the specific way you’ve observed, or about what they can do to solve the problem. If Tracy can work out an answer for herself, she is at least twice as likely to actually do what she promises, compared to doing the job your way – questions are much more powerful than the answers you think are right!

Most of us can put together five or six stock questions to fall back on in feedback situations. These should all be open questions, to start discussions and allow your team member to think through what went wrong or what he or she can do next time. This is respectful, calm and non-confrontational. My favourite questions include:

  • What happened there? Or, tell me a wee bit more about what happened? (Maybe you need the Scot’s accent!).
  • Did you notice that had happened?
  • Why did that happen?
  • What do you think you/we can do to sort this out?
  • How can you give me confidence this will be different/change/won’t happen again?
  • Do you need any help to sort this out?
4)      Focus on the outcome

Try not to stray into personal or emotional territory during these conversations. Guilt and blame are the two most useless human emotions, so keep clear by focusing on what the outcome needs to be and how you need to reach an agreement about solving the problem. Your tricky team member may well try to divert your attention or the blame, or focus on issues beyond the single problem you wish to tackle, but you can stay on topic if you concentrate, and you can keep bringing the discussion back to the need to move forwards.

5)      Do it often

The world’s most effective people tackle all sorts of problems as soon as they spot them happening, using constructive feedback skills and an open enquiring, helpful attitude. They could be having conversations like that illustrated ten or twelve times a day with different individuals – and no one ever notices they’re being in any way personally critical. They can also give feedback to the same person several times before they notice changes happen – remember habits are hard to change. And they are the people we most admire for their leadership, management and team bonding skills. It’s no accident that they frequently become more successful and run better businesses than others.

You can read more useful articles about Staff Management and Employment law by visiting our Resource Library.

About the author

Sheila Scott has over 20 years’ experience in dental business coaching and is one of dentistry’s most sought after speakers.


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