Learning through observation: Different generations offer differing viewpoints during dental office transition

May 11, 2015
Different generations offer differing viewpoints during office transition

BY Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

Different generations offer differing viewpoints during office transition

Self-observation Steps

1. Step away from inflamed reactions - Breathe and then breathe some more
2. Be curious - Simply be interested in how you are feeling
3. Identify what you are feeling - This will help to neutralize strong emotions
4. Detach from the feeling - Create distance and maintain calm and balance
5. Maintain an open mind - Investigate possible multiple solutions

The biggest challenge of her career is upon her. It is going to take all Sarah's focus, open-mindedness, and energy to rise to her new position as the office administrator of a busy practice in flux. This practice's baby boomer dentist and longtime traditionalist office manager are retiring. The younger dentist, a Gen Xer who has been an associate for three years, has purchased the practice. Although the retiring office manager had groomed one of the assistants to step into the role, the new owner believes this promotion would be a mistake. It is clear to him that the practice needs a shift on many fronts.


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The young dentist recognizes this time as a new beginning, a time when the status quo can be challenged and different thinking introduced. Relations among the office staff are strained, to say the least. He needs a manager with no preconceived ideas, prejudgment, or office alliances. The practice requires someone who can objectively observe its dynamics, and can creatively help navigate solutions to the mounting problems. Sarah is the right person for the job.

Sarah knows she needs to be an astute observer in order to understand what actually is going on and where to go next. The team of four generations is not functioning well, and the malaise affects everything from harmony to productivity in the office.1 Discord has been brewing for years, and like any chronic infection, the frequency of flare-ups is increasing. It is only a matter of time before the toxicity of a massive eruption potentially dismantles the entire team.

The goal of the new office administrator is to eliminate destructive behavior and steer the team in another direction. Sarah recognizes that the discovery skill of observation is key to uncovering exactly what is going on. She will resist hearsay and see what the issues are - for herself.

Although everyone on staff says they want to be a team, they are not behaving as a team. The dis-ease is palatable in their tensions. Sarah observes trouble early on: in-fighting between the oldest and newest workers, people pitting themselves against one another, exclusive cliques, toxic accusations (e.g., that a Generation Xer is texting all the time and not doing her tasks), the team's refusal to help a traditionalist struggling to adapt to new technology, a baby boomer hygienist not sharing information from a recent course, a millennial worker being isolated because she is of another culture. Inflamed confrontations are occurring regularly because of breakdowns in trust and communication.

One of Sarah's key tactics is to coach the staff on the skill of observation. Each individual would benefit by learning to self-observe in moments of stress. Sarah knows it is easy to be frustrated or angered by another team member's words, tone of voice, and actions. The pattern is reaction followed by a reaction, followed by yet another reaction. The problem grows when we either attack, or accommodate, or avoid the issues altogether.

None of these three common reactions serves our true interests. William Ury, cofounder of Harvard's program on negotiation, says that "once the fight-or-flight reaction gets triggered, the blood flows from our brain to our limbs, and our ability to think clearly diminishes." We forget our purpose and often act exactly contrary to our interests. When we react, we lose the power to influence the other person constructively and to change the situation for the better. When we react, we are, in effect, saying no to our interest.

The challenge for Sarah is to influence the team to begin practicing self-observation. She knows that coaching them to step away from reactions and simply identify how they are feeling will help to neutralize negative consequences. By observing passing thoughts, emotions, and sensations, and even naming them - "Oh, that is my good buddy Judgment; there goes my companion, Anger" - they will find aid in maintaining a state of balance and calm.

This is not easy, especially in the heat of a difficult conversation. Practicing self-observation is the foundation of self-mastery. When we adopt a curious attitude and maintain a detached and open mind, we can create distance from our reaction.2 Sarah wants to help her team develop the ability to cultivate their inner investigator and to suspend self-judgment to the event. When we learn to quiet the mind, the wise words of the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, ring true: "To observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence."

Sarah is careful to notice staff members' efforts to bridge the divide and to help them when they fall short. She has committed to making herself available by supporting the team in shifting from a confrontational mind-set to a collaborative one. The new office manager stays detached and watchful and is fair to everyone. As the staff's trust in Sarah grows and they broaden their skill of self-observation, they begin to see the benefits to viewing their grievances from a different perspective.

Yet, Sarah is realistic. She knows that observation alone won't mend the broken relationships within the office. It will take time and the unfaltering desire to make it work. Questions need to be asked and a revamping of the office's mission statement, along with appealing to everyone's individual talents and strengths will be one step.

Other steps will involve networking for a broader base of ideas, experimenting to see what works and what doesn't, and letting the issues and possible solutions incubate. Going to the office every day with a fresh mind and a state of calmness will be imperative to help the team achieve a cohesion that has evaporated in a sea of mistrust over the years.

Sarah has never shied away from a challenge and isn't going to start now. She is confident that by being armed with the "discovery cycle," she will be able to create a harmonious team. She knows that change will occur only with skilled attention and strong intention. Sarah intends to help create a tomorrow in her new office that is both fulfilling and enriching for everyone. With this laserlike focus, she willingly embraces this new era. RDH


1. Martin CA, Tulgan B. Managing the Generation Mix. Amherst, MA: HRD Press; 2006.
2. Ury W. Getting to Yes with Yourself (and Other Worthy Opponents). New York City: HarperOne; 2015.

Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .