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Staff Rx: How to handle a doctor who lacks management skills

March 4, 2020
Handling a dentist who lacks management skills—especially people skills—is never easy. Remember that people treat us the way we allow them to, and react professionally.

Editor's note: Staff Rx appears monthly in RDH magazine. View her past columns here.

Dear Dianne,

I’ve been a hygienist for more than 30 years in the same office. Last year, the owner retired and sold the practice to a young dentist. The transition has been hard on all of us who work there, primarily because the new owner is totally lacking in management skills. For example, when a coworker is not doing something right, she blasts the whole group, even if it doesn’t pertain to everyone. She also embarrasses us in front of our coworkers. At one of our staff meetings, she singled me out because I inadvertently left a piece of calculus that showed up on a radiograph. Now she demands that I leave a scaler on the tray for the exam, stating, “I could not sleep that night knowing that calculus was left.” She even said that she could understand why I might leave something, since prophys are “boring and mundane.” Her words crushed me. 

There is an overall feeling in the office that she would prefer not to have “older” employees. When we needed a temp hygienist, the doctor asked me how old the temp was. Evidently, she didn’t want an “old” temp. I’m in my 50s, but this doctor makes me feel like I’m ancient. I used to love to come to work, but now I have a sense of dread. I’m always wondering what new insult I will be forced to swallow as I do my job. I know quitting is always an option, but hygiene jobs are scarce in my area. I love my patients and have enjoyed providing care for them and now, their children. Can you give me any tips on dealing constructively with my boss?

Demoralized RDH

Dear Demoralized,

Let me offer congratulations to you for your longevity in one office. For you to stay 30 years in one practice says a lot about the management style and office culture created by the former owner. Patients like seeing the familiar faces of staff members, and hygienists and chairside and business assistants often build close, connected relationships with patients. Your longevity has allowed you to share in life’s journey with many people, and I can tell that you value those relationships. Helping people you care about gives meaning and substance to your work. No doubt, your former boss had similar values and built a culture of caring in the workplace. 

However, practice transitions to new management are never easy. A new owner brings differences in personality, philosophy, temperament, and management style. In addition, when the selling doctor is loved by the staff, it is extremely difficult for them to let go of that doctor. Doctors who have been kind, generous, and appreciative toward their staff members typically have a team with deep-seated loyalty. The transition is made more difficult if the new owner makes sweeping changes to the practice. For many people, change is hard to accept. It is not unusual for staff members to leave during a difficult transition period when changes seem unreasonable and burdensome. 

From your question, it sounds like the new owner is lacking in management skills, but more specifically, people skills. Blasting the whole group—called shotgun management—when addressing the work deficits of a single individual shows a glaring lack of courage in addressing the problem one-on-one with the staff member. It is also disrespectful of staff members who are not guilty. Everybody is wondering who, specifically, the doctor is addressing. Shotgun management never works. If a staff member is not performing to the employer’s expectations, then the employer needs to address the problem with the person individually. The employer needs to assess whether the expectations are reasonable, and if so, whether the staff member can change to meet the challenge. 

I cringed when I read your statement about being singled out negatively in a staff meeting. Calling people out in front of their peers only serves to reduce trust and damage rapport. The new owner should be trying to establish trust and build rapport with staff members. We are emotional beings, and managers need to consider how their words affect their teams if they intend to manage effectively. 

Chiding you because you left a piece of subgingival calculus tells me this doctor has a massive ego problem. The very idea that she would challenge the skills of a seasoned hygienist with 30 years of experience shows me how little she really knows about calculus removal. Here’s a news alert—we all leave calculus. We don’t ever get it all off. Numerous studies have examined the notion of complete calculus removal and determined it is basically an unattainable goal.1 This doesn’t excuse sloppy work, but the doctor’s overly dramatic reaction is insulting and off-putting. 

The insults do not stop there. By characterizing prophys as “boring and mundane,” the doctor is stating how little she respects the work you do. I suppose we could also characterize certain restorative procedures as “boring and mundane,” but I’ve never known a hygienist to disrespect what the doctor does. So next time you find a less-than-perfect subgingival margin, will you be telling the doctor that you can understand why the margin was missed, probably because the work is boring and mundane? I don’t think so. 

The doctor should have preserved your dignity by speaking to you privately. If she came in to do the exam before you had a chance to go back and remove the calculus, then you should have said, “I will readdress No. 19 after you finish the exam.” 

People treat us the way we allow them to treat us. You have every right to stand up for yourself. I would say calmly, unemotionally, and confidently, “I have a professional request. In the future, do not ever call me out or question my skills as a seasoned hygienist in front of my coworkers or patients. I hope it was not your intention to humiliate me. Also, do not expect me to be perfect. If I leave calculus, I did not do it intentionally. None of us are perfect.” 

Age discrimination in the workplace is alive and well. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. If you feel you have been the victim of age discrimination in the workplace, you should contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They can direct you as to the appropriate actions you should take. 

Victor Lipman, in his book titled The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World, writes that people leave managers, not companies. I believe Mr. Lipman is correct. Successful businesses rise or fail on management. It is such a fundamental concept, yet too many managers today destroy the morale of employees, thus harming their own businesses because they act like jerks. Why is respect and common courtesy from management so rare today? Why can’t people just be nice?

All the best,



  1. Kepic TJ, O’Leary TJ, Kafrawy AH. Total calculus removal: An attainable objective? J Periodontal.1990;61(1);16-20. doi: 10.1902/jop.1990.61.1.16.

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical analysis and teleconsulting. Visit her website at wattersonspeaks.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Watterson at [email protected] or call (336) 472-3515.

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About the Author

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical analysis and teleconsulting. Visit her website at wattersonspeaks.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Watterson at [email protected] or call (336) 472-3515.

Updated June 30, 2020