Set in your ways? How to embrace change in a tension-filled dental office

Oct. 18, 2016
Jannette Whisenhunt reviews some simple rules for a dental office that could reduce the amount of tension between staff members.

By Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD

Getting along with your team members can make the biggest difference in how an office runs. But staff relations also can take a toll on you emotionally and physically if it is not going well. It is not always easy being the new kid on the team, regardless of whether you just graduated, new to the area, or already have years of experience.

Everyone can learn how to get along better with their team members. It is very hard to work with someone who is "set in their ways" and won't try or even contemplate changing things. Change is not something that most people love, but it is something that is inevitable, and we need to realize that, most of the time, change is for the better.

I am an instructor who checks on dental assisting students during the summer months when they are doing their clinical rotations. It is amazing to observe the differences in the offices that I visit. I have known many of these offices for decades, and I am always happy to go to many of them because they have the same team in the office. It is like having a happy family reunion. I love these offices, because they all seem so happy to work together, and they have such a great rapport with each other.

Staff members in the opposite type of offices are not as "happy." They always have different people there, and you can almost cut the tension in the office with a knife.

If you find yourself in a position where you are working with someone who is not so easy to deal with, then hopefully these few words will give you the mindset to make it through the day. Some of these ideas are old sayings. Some are things that you may have heard growing up, but they work and shouldn't be dismissed.

  • Mind your own business: You have to do your work to the best of your ability, and it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and no one else.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do to you: Just because that one person does not treat others in the way you think is right, that doesn't give you the right to treat anyone, especially them, in an unprofessional way. You treat them and everyone in a kind, honest, and professional way. Maybe your kindness will start rubbing off on them. If it doesn't, then you are still doing the right thing in how you act.
  • If you can't say anything nice about someone, then say nothing at all: This one is hard! Don't talk about that one person who is hard to get along with. Do not engage in conversations where someone starts maligning that person. Just walk away and don't' get involved in the "gossip". One of the best things someone can say about you is that you never have a bad word to say about anyone. This one is much easier said than done.
  • You are there to do a job, so do it!: You were hired to do a job, to take care of your patients, and be helpful for your dentist's practice. Do what you are there to do, and don't worry when someone else does not get along with others. In most instances, that person will not last long, and they will be gone once they "show their true colors." The dentist or office manager will have had enough. It is hard not to be involved with what is going on in the office with your team, but you keep yourself engaged with the patients and doing your work day in and day out.
  • Don't put your energy into someone else who will pull you down: More times than not, it is easy to spot the "bad apple" in a group. It is best to be cordial, friendly, help when asked, but don't go out of your way to be their buddy. This causes more headaches than you will want to deal with. They will be doing their own thing and you will be the one trying to clean up their mess.
  • Change your attitude: Sometimes whatever you do will not change things with that person, and you have to learn to just live with it. Sometimes it is your attitude that needs to change towards them, and it should be in a way that you can live with and not let it stress you out. Sometimes thinking about what you have in your life or at home will give you a blessing to count, and you can focus on the good things you have instead of the issues you have at work.

Dealing with someone who is difficult can cause emotional stress. Possibly you do not want to go into work every day. We all know that stress can cause physical issues, headaches, and depression.

That is not acceptable and you have to figure out a way to work through the issues that you are facing. You have worked hard to get where you are in your career and you need to take control if you find yourself in a bad situation. Here are a few options for you, and some will work easier for you than others. If you go into any solution with the right attitude and a good heart, then you can find a way to live with or improve your situation.

  • Go to that person and ask if you can sit and talk with them about something that is bothering you. Be ready to put your issue in a well thought through rehearsal. It is best to start with this type of wording: "When you do (blank), it affects me in this way (blank), and I would like to talk to you about a way we can work together on a solution." Be ready for a variety of responses, and think through a response for each of the possible reactions. Be sure to tell them that you respect them or the experience they have, and you want to be able to work with them in a better atmosphere.
  • Go to the office manager or the dentist if it is a matter of the patients not being cared for appropriately, or if there is a safety issue for staff or patients involved. If it is a "personal" issue, then it is usually best to try to work this out between you than bring it to the office manager. It will seem like you are being a "tattletale" and trying to get that person in trouble. If it is a serious issue, then it does need to be taken higher up to someone who can make a decision. It makes matters worse if you talk to everyone else in the office except that person or the person who has some authority and can make a decision. The fewer people that are involved the better.

If you think you may be set in your ways, then why are you that way? Are you still doing things the way you learned in school 20 years ago? I sure hope not. You are in a profession that needs you to stay in tune with what is happening in your field. Your patients and office deserve someone that is top notch and wants to stay on top of what is going on. I would think that if you are reading your professional journals that you would not fit into this category! But you probably know someone like this and maybe you can help them see the error of their "set ways."

It is not easy to see that you are stuck in a rut. Many people hate change and will fight against it with all their might. That doesn't mean that they won't have to change. I was talking to one of the hygienists in an office, and both of us remembering how we hated to start wearing glovesn back in the 1980s. We started in dentistry in the 1970s when PPE was a thing of the future! Wow, I'm glad now that we were not "set in our ways" and realized that change can be better. Have a great week, try to get along with that problem person, and happy scaling! RDH


1. Eddie D. How do I deal with a co-worker who doesn't like me? The Globe and Mail website. Published May 28, 2015. Updated May 29, 2015.
2. Reynolds M. What To Do When Someone Doesn't Like You. Psychology Today. https:/ Published September 7, 2012.
3. Smith GP. Conflict Resolution: 8 Strategies to Manage Workplace Conflict. Business Know-How.

Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD, is the Department Chair of Dental Education at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dr. Whisenhunt has taught since 1987 in the dental hygiene and dental assisting curricula. She has a love for students and served as the state student advisor for nine years and has won the student Advisor of the Year award from ADHA in the past. Her teaching interests are in oral cancer, ethics, infection control, emergencies and orofacial anatomy. Dr. Whisenhunt also has a small continuing education business where she provides CE courses for dental practices and local associations. She can be reached at [email protected].