What would appear on your list for creating a positive dental office environment?

June 18, 2016
Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, describes how improving staff relations can improve a positive dental office environment.

By Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA

Have you noticed how stressed people appear lately? Do you hear and see it in your patients? Are you listening to yourself? While recently running errands, I couldn't help but notice the stress and fatigue in several retail service workers. At a doctor's office located near mine, I watched a person dressed in scrubs dash outside to smoke a cigarette and talk loudly on the phone about how much she hated working for the doctor.

During my recent visit to the grocery store, I watched as a woman was relieved of her duties by a coworker because she had put in a 10-hour day preceded by being up all night with her sick child. She had a meltdown at the register. A clerk told me she used to have five people working in her department and now she is the only one. I watched as she answered the phone and tried to meet the needs of three customers impatiently waiting for her attention.

Many people have financial stressors-mortgages, student loans, child care, caring for aging parents and/or grandchildren, children moving back home after college, and employers making more demands and threatening more layoffs. Ever wonder how much your coworkers are dealing with and carrying with them as they arrive at the office?

We're human and we have various tolerance levels for stress. The next time you see someone having a difficult time at work or while you're out and about, imagine that they have several challenges in their life. What if they just buried a loved one, finalized a divorce, or received an eviction notice? Would you treat them differently?

A few years ago I found a book titled "How Full Is Your Bucket?" (Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton). I included a few concepts from the book in my PowerPoint about "filling people's buckets with positive thoughts," which should lead to improved outcomes with patients and team members. Two years ago an organization asked me if I could offer a workshop on this book for their "Women on Their Way" program, a group within the organization seeking greater fulfillment and advancement.

I jumped at the opportunity and crafted my presentation. Throughout the session, I watched as participants engaged in the concepts of the book, and I stayed afterwards for 30 minutes to listen to their comments about how helpful the program was and to listen to their stories. I was asked to deliver the same program to a different department. After reflecting on these two programs, I realized that dental professionals could benefit from the concepts. I've delivered several presentations on "Creating a Positive Work Environment" to various dental audiences. "What a great way to start the New Year," said one RDH participant. Comments like these fill my bucket.

Here is the introduction to "How Full Is Your Bucket?" "How did you feel after your last interaction with another person? Did that person fill your imaginary bucket by making you feel more positive? Or did they dip from your bucket, leaving you more negative?" Donald Clifton is the grandfather of positive psychology while Tom Rath is a global practice leader at the Gallup Organization.

The bucket philosophy

Much like Stephen Covey's books proclaim, we make positive deposits in people much like we make a bank deposit and, like a bank, we also make withdrawals that leave people feeling bad. Rath and Clifton use the analogy of an imaginary bucket that we carry with us. Imagine that we all have an imaginary bucket and dipper that can be filled with positive experiences or depleted with negative ones. For example, when a patient, employer, or instructor compliments our work, we feel positive. If the same person is irate and attacks our work, we feel uncomfortable as our bucket is depleted. Think about what happens to our morale when we're treated poorly. I read this last night on a dental hygiene Facebook page: "It's Sunday evening, and I'm dreading going to the office tomorrow. The new dentist is a tyrant!"

When we do things to increase positive emotions, we not only fill others' buckets, we add to our own. It's important to remember that we always have a choice in our words and actions, no matter the situation. As my mother often said, "If you can't say something nice, keep it to yourself." We choose to say and do things that make others feel good about themselves or not. Wonderful things happen when we make patients, coworkers, our boss, or our family members feel appreciated.

In fact, according to Rath, the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs is because they do not feel appreciated. Every drop in our bucket encourages us and propels us to be better and to improve our service to others. In a positive environment, many research studies reveal that production increases and people feel less stressed. No one likes working in a negative environment and going home with stress-related symptoms-headache, backache, indigestion, and fatigue. Rath and Clifton have surveyed more than four million employees worldwide, including more than 10,000 business units in more than 30 industries. The results when individuals receive regular recognition and praise:

  • Increased productivity
  • Increased engagement among their colleagues
  • More likely to stay with the organization
  • Receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers
  • Have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job

These are admirable traits that any employer would like to see. Having these traits means better profits that the entire team can realize. If the employer, as the leader, can initiate positive actions and behaviors, it becomes a leadership style that benefits everyone, including patients. Patients observe you when you're least expecting it. They have a sixth sense for assessing positive interaction between team members, and they feel more comfortable with your care when they sense you are content.

I had a former student tell me that her employer never complimented her work, even though patients would tell the dentist in my student's presence that they had never had such thorough care. The dentist would simply change the subject. How disheartening to the hygienist. How would you feel after that encounter? If you're like most of people, you wouldn't feel appreciated by your employer.

The last couple years have been very good to me professionally. I was selected the Outstanding Member of my local component, chosen to be spotlighted on the cover of RDH magazine, and was awarded Woman of Excellence by my local Chamber of Commerce. Think about what recognition does for you personally. I felt more committed to my profession and I started contributing more to dental hygiene and to my community. I serve on the board of a nonprofit to improve oral health literacy in children, connecting the organization with corporate donors, and enlisting volunteers for our events. I have written about volunteering in several publications, including this one. Volunteering gives so much back to us while we serve others.

Conversely, when we are in a negative environment, we not only decrease productivity and office morale, we scare off our patients. Rath indicates that customers may be gone for good. Customer service studies show that people who are dissatisfied with service tell 10 or more people about their experience. Think of the impact this can have on your dental practice. A conservative estimate of the cost of disengagement is $250 to $300 billion per year. Negative people disengage and are costly to an office in many ways. They disrupt other employees. Rath and Clifton say they should stay home because they bring others down with their sinking ship. I'm sure many of you have been in an office that has that "one person" on the team. The person can infect the entire office and be emotionally draining to all team members.

The Recognition Gap from Rath and Clifton concludes:

  • Praise is rare in most workplaces.
  • One poll found an astounding 65% of Americans reported receiving NO recognition for good work in the past year.
  • Organizations suffer because of this lack of praise.
  • Sincere and meaningful bucket filling increases the morale of any organizatio.
  • People who actively spread positive emotions will see difference immediately.

I especially like the comments from parents of teens. This is powerful for them too. I look forward to hearing from you as you take the challenge to increase positive emotions in your office or home. I thank the authors of "How Full Is Your Bucket?" for sharing their research and allowing me to deliver programs that improve lives. It's an encouraging message in this time of negativity so prevalent in the media. Feel free to reach out to me on social media, e-mail, or phone to share your stories. I wish all of you a wonderful journey as you improve lives around you. I know your life will be enriched as you enrich the lives of others. RDH

How do we contribute to a healthy and positive office environment?

  • Ask your team members how they like to be recognized. We are individuals with different needs. Some people may prefer to remain in the background and one-on-one personal acknowledgement, while others like certificates such as Employee of the Month. Most people, however, react well to public praise. In other words, when we compliment and appreciate someone in the presence of others, it is more powerful.
  • It's the little things that matter, especially over time, such as a simple note next to someone's work area or coffee mug expressing appreciation. If it's related to a specific event, the appreciation is even more powerful: "Thank you, Nancy, for helping get your elderly patient safely to her car. You are a great asset to our practice."
  • Give unexpectedly. A recent poll by Rath indicated that the vast majority of people prefer unexpected gifts. Although expected gifts fill our bucket, receiving unexpected gifts fills our buckets a little more. Remember an event where that happened to you and you can appreciate the benefits. I remember someone cutting out an article about my daughter and framing it for me. The frame was inexpensive, but the gesture from that person was priceless.
  • Give others your undivided attention. Practice being fully present without distraction, eye-to-eye and knee-to-knee. This recognizes and appreciates others at a profound level. Put down the smartphone! How many of you have been annoyed by people who obsessively text while you're speaking to them? You're missing out if you're distracted with your devices. USA Today reported that people say we've become ruder with the use of our devices today. As a student of communication science, I couldn't agree more.

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA FADIA, is well known for her role as professor emeritus at Ferris State University in Michigan and as founder of Professional Development Association, Inc. She has delivered hundreds of empowering presentations to varied professional groups with rave reviews. As an author, speaker, entrepreneur, and a Sunstar Award of Distinction recipient, she engages her audiences with wit and humor. She will be speaking as a panelist at Under One Roof, Evolve Your Dental Hygiene Career. Visit her website at lindapda.com.