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WANTED: A superior workplace

June 1, 2002
Being content with a job is one thing. Being truly happy in that job is another.

by Misty Franklin Perkins, RDH, BS

Ask yourself this question and answer honestly: Am I truly happy in my workplace? Being content or satisfied with a job is one thing. Being truly happy in that job is another. Let me encourage you to change the lens you are using to look at your workplace and reconsider the question.

Should you be happy with being comfortable when you could be stimulated, challenged, and fulfilled? What if you could be inspired to improve yourself, to make a real difference in the world through your profession? Maybe you think your job is fine because there isn't an identifiable or acute problem. Somehow, though, you know it could be better. Maybe you're unhappy and think you're just tired of dental hygiene. Could it be that you are tired of how and where you practice?

You may feel powerless to do anything about your situation. True, change is difficult. We all fear changing jobs, moving, making new friends, etc. Sometimes, we have little choice about change, and we just roll with the proverbial punches. At other times, we recognize that change is necessary. We may even have some control over the needed changes, but we let the fear of the unknown cheat us out of a better opportunity.

In his entertaining book on change, Who Moved My Cheese?, Dr. Spencer Johnson asks: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" It really is empowering once you take fear out of the equation. You then can think more logically and objectively about a situation - compare the "pros" and "cons," so to speak. I am writing this article because I have found myself asking this very question.

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Being a dental hygienist has been very good for me, because my husband's profession as an engineer has moved us from coast to coast and halfway in between during the past 12 years. I have worked as an RDH in four states, for 12 offices, and under 20 different dentists. I have seen much dentistry, a variety of office dynamics, good and poor management, happy and unhappy office staffs, and caring and moody bosses. You name it, I've seen it! Through it all, I have found that coming into a new office can be both challenging and frustrating.

I recently left a terrific office, and I can't help but compare every other office to it. I feel that I have so much insight to offer, but I have encountered much resistance or a lack of urgency to change when I try to make suggestions on how to make needed improvements. No office wants to hear how much better it was at "Dr. Jones' office." So, I have typically chosen to wait, get to know my new bosses and coworkers better, and then slowly try to initiate change.

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After months of cajoling my coworkers to implement a few small changes, I soon grow impatient and disillusioned when I realize that they don't see any reason for change. After all, they have "done it this way for years," and "who does this new hygienist think she is, anyway?" My boss may seem excited by my enthusiasm to implement new systems, but he doesn't encourage the others to get on board. Perhaps he isn't sure how to motivate them, or feels too busy to tackle a new project. Perhaps his leadership skills need refining. For whatever reason, I don't feel satisfied because I know it could be better: I have seen it! However, I am powerless to implement change by myself.

Maybe you are in a similar situation, or possibly you are one of the employees in a dental office that has done things the same way for years. No one is unhappy, but no one is very passionate either. Perhaps you have tried to improve your workplace by suggesting office meetings, ordering new equipment/technology, and attending seminars, but nothing really seems to change. So, you may have become cynical, discouraged, or just given up.

After all, "there are worse places to work," you tell yourself. You like your coworkers, you like your patients, you like your boss, but the job leaves you with a feeling of ennui. You slowly find yourself in a rut, where you just feel like a tooth-scraper punching a time clock. This, my fellow hygienist, is burnout nipping at your heels. (Well, maybe it already has eaten your foot!) You used to like this job, so what happened? Should you quit hygiene and start a new career? Should you find a new office? Possibly. But before you make any impetuous decisions, maybe you should consider speaking to your current boss about your feelings. It is conceivable that he or she feels the same way you do, but is unable to figure out what to do to make it better.

First, let's examine what core elements are needed to attract and retain the best people in the current marketplace. What does an exceptional workplace look like? This isn't a new subject; research has been done in this area for decades. In their book, First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman discuss research conducted by the Gallop Organization over a period of 25 years, surveying over one million people on satisfaction in the workplace.

Things like appreciation, adequate resources for doing a good job, knowing what's expected of you, and being asked for your input rank among the most important. Salary, benefits, and raises rank at the bottom of the list. Not surprised, huh? The chart at the top of this page shows Buckingham and Coffman's "Twelve Questions To Assess Your Workplace." By answering these questions, you can benchmark your current situation with the absolute best. But, keep in mind that very few workplaces provide a culture where every question on this list would be answered in the affirmative. However, it will provide you with a basis for continuous improvement or serve as a guide to evaluate a new workplace.

If you answered an emphatic "yes" to all or most of the 12 questions, it sounds like you work in a superior office where the employees enjoy their work, the dental team works smoothly and effectively together, and employee turnover is low. People like working in a fun environment where common goals are not only achieved, but everyone succeeds! (If you are in a great office like this, and you still don't feel fulfilled, then maybe you should take a closer look within yourself. A good book that may persuade you to transform your life is Deep Change by Robert E. Quinn.)

However, if you answered, "no," "maybe," or "sometimes" to most of the questions, don't be discouraged! Remember, where there is room for improvement, there is a challenge to be had. Dr. Al Stenger, a practicing dentist and consultant with Schroeder & Stenger Consulting, Richmond, Va., recommends that you ask yourself: "What is my role in creating the workplace of my dreams?" He says, "Ask your boss to sit down with you and have a re-evaluation interview in order to see if your goals and dreams are still aligned with the practice's after all these years."

Stenger says, "[Do this] just as you may suggest a 'new exam' or 're-exam' to a patient who has been under your care for many years." Show your employer "The Twelve Questions to Assess Your Workplace," and honestly discuss your answers and feelings on the matter. You may be surprised by his reaction. He may feel the same way you do, but is afraid to "rock the boat," because he knows how difficult it is to get others to accept change, even if it is positive change. Stenger says he has seen this dilemma in his work with many small professional businesses, civic organizations, and other groups.

"One of the problems is that management implements most change without considering the unique abilities and needs of those who are most affected by the change," Stenger explains. "It's not so much that people resist change; rather, they are either not engaged for various reasons or they are not given the tools needed to effect the desired change. Returning to the status quo becomes the usual result and they lose confidence in their ability to be effective."

Dr. Stenger and his partner, Dr. Jim Schroeder, believe that "any workplace's greatest resource is its people," and positive change can occur only if the employers are willing to accept this simple fact. If the tone feels right, you could suggest investing in outside expertise. Your doctor may surprise you, and realize just how valuable hiring a consultant could be if it meant implementing changes that would have a profound impact on achieving fulfillment in the workplace.

On the other hand, your boss may not see eye-to-eye with you on this matter. He may seem apathetic, become defensive, or even angry with you. If you feel that it is impossible to make your current workplace "the office of your dreams" because the boss doesn't see any reason to change - and you have truly exhausted all of your resources - then perhaps it is time to find another workplace more suitable for you.

One very appealing fact about hygiene is that most of us experience the luxury of being in high demand and short supply. My husband constantly reminds me of this simple concept of economics; he sometimes wishes that he had other job choices without having to move from city to city.

Now let's address how to find that superior office. Be patient. Ask around. Do you often hear how great a certain office in town is from hygiene colleagues, instructors, and patients? Are certain dentists in town known for their community service, office parties and trips, and excellent reputations? Perhaps you know people who often mention that they "just love Dr. So-and-so." If this is the case, get to know these doctors and their staffs at continuing-education seminars, charity events, etc. Send them a resume, even if you know they don't need a hygienist. You never know what could happen!

Another useful aid in assessing the ideal office is to remember that "the interview" is a two-way exchange of information. You are trying to see if the dentist and office are a good match for you. Ask the dentist (and office manager, if there is one) about philosophies on patient care, treatment-planning, performance evaluations, personalities of the staff, how disputes are handled, future plans for the office, and what will be expected of you.

If the dentist gets excited and appears passionate when discussing clinical dentistry, patient care, and treatment-planning - and seems interested in the office dynamics of his staff - then his enthusiasm will become contagious. Enthusiasm probably is the most important characteristic of an effective leader. If the dentist is already experiencing burnout, chances are good that his office won't be your ideal.

Because, as the saying goes, "talk is cheap." It often is a good idea to work a day or two in a office you are interested in as a "trial run" or "working interview." Some hygienists have found their ideal workplace by working as a temporary in different offices on their days off. I also recommend going to lunch with the staff, if possible. Ask them how long they have worked in the office. Staff longevity and low turnover usually mean the working conditions are good. Ask about communication in the office: Are there regular office meetings? Do the dentist and office manager give positive reinforcement and constructive feedback regularly? Is the boss accessible during the day for conversation?

Ask why the staff likes working in the office. Do staff members have a sense of ownership in the practice? Do they feel they are "in the loop" as far as information being shared with them, opinions being asked of them, and being involved in decisions that directly affect their jobs? Do they feel they are self-managed or micro-managed? Harvey and Ventura are fond of a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt that reinforces mutual trust in the workplace: "The best executive is the one who has enough sense to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." Granted, you may not be able to find out all of this in one lunch hour with the staff, but at least you will gain some insight on certain qualities you desire in an office.

Take a look at the office itself. Is it attractive and orderly? Do the employees seem happy and busy, and the patients comfortable and well-cared for? Does the office use up-to-date technology and equipment? A systematic, organized office in which the team operates as a "well-oiled" machine is much more conducive to a sense of fulfillment in the workplace.

Most great offices in which I have worked share another common denominator: the bosses care about their employees as people! They are compassionate and sympathetic to all problems, both personal and work-related. If you work for a dentist who doesn't know much about you after you have worked for him for a year, maybe he's too busy ... or he simply doesn't care. I believe effective, two-way communication is the number one reason for a feeling of satisfaction in the workplace. If people care enough to listen without defending - and speak without offending - there is no limit to what they can achieve in a working relationship.

Someone wise once said, "Don't show me how much you know; show me how much you care." To me, this says it all. Setting a good example empowers others to do the same.

Hopefully, I have at least started you thinking about what you value in a workplace. The concept of change is often hard to grasp, let alone implement. However, we must realize that, without change, there is no growth. Without growth, we become stagnant. You may not have even noticed that your workplace isn't fulfilling to you. As hygienists, we spend at least one-third of our waking hours at the dental office; therefore, if you aren't jumping out of bed looking forward to work, then think of all the potentially wasted hours that might be better spent experiencing fulfillment and joy.

I am not saying that work should always be fun and satisfying, but overall, you should be passionate about life in general. If your workplace isn't contributing to that - if it is actually depleting your passion for life- then shouldn't you consider taking an active stance in building your own happiness? It's like that old saying about changing what you can in life, accepting what you cannot, and having the wisdom to know the difference.

You can change your workplace. Change is scary, but, without it, we will continue to get the same results. According to the book, Developing the Leader Within You, by John C. Maxwell, "Not all change is improvement, but without change, there can be no improvement." He also reiterates that change equals growth, and that "when you're through changing, you're through."

If I have at least started the wheels turning in your head, then I have accomplished my objective: To encourage you to evaluate your current situation and assess whether you have the opportunity, courage, and conviction to seek out a change in your environment that will positively impact your life as a whole.

Misty Franklin Perkins, RDH, BS, earned her dental hygiene degree at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry. She has worked in several states, moving to Natchitoches, La., in May of 2001, where she currently works part-time for two dental offices. She is in the process of obtaining her anesthesia certification so that she can give anesthetic injections as she has done in the past. She considers herself an oral-health educator first, a periodontal therapist second, and a preventive-service provider third.