Shotgun management

May 1, 2002
I work in a two-doctor practice in the south. There are three hygienists, four dental assistants, and four business assistants.

Dear Dianne,
I work in a two-doctor practice in the south. There are three hygienists, four dental assistants, and four business assistants.

Our office temperature is often warm and stuffy, so it is not unusual for us to open a few windows when the weather outside is pleasant. Not long ago, someone inadvertently left a window open at the end of the day in the sterilization area. Based on the actions of the office manager, you would have thought that someone had committed a heinous crime! She sent a memo to every staff member stating that leaving windows open overnight is a serious offense punishable by reprimand and subsequent termination for a second offense. Since only two people are known to open windows in the sterilization area, it would seem more appropriate to speak to those people privately instead of targeting everyone. The sternly worded memo left us all wondering if we were in trouble and made us feel terrible!

What do you think of this management technique? Could this have been handled better?

Left Wondering in Louisiana

Dear Wondering,

Your office manager used a management style that I call "shotgun management." As you may know, a shotgun shell sends out a spray of pellets that hits a much broader target than a single bullet would hit. The advantage is that hitting the target is easier. The disadvantage is that non-targeted areas are hit as well.

Most dentists are nonconfrontational by nature. They would rather walk across hot coals barefooted than reprimand a staff member. So, when an issue surfaces, some take the easy way out and avoid direct confrontation by firing the "shotgun." Guilty parties are relieved to have escaped a direct reprimand, and innocent parties resent that they have to share blame for something they did not do. In my opinion, shotgun management does more harm than good.

Obviously, the guilty party is aware that he/she erred. The mature and forthright thing for that person to do would be to step forward and accept responsibility for his/her actions. Doing so takes the burden of guilt off innocent people. Indeed, that person would command a higher level of respect among coworkers by being honest about the obvious mistake. Admitting mistakes takes courage and maturity.

Some quesitons arise. Why did the offending staff member choose not to step up and accept responsibility? Could it be that he/she was fearful of being terminated? Did this person commit previous infractions? Is the practice atmosphere tense and intimidating?

The fear of reprisal can cause people to try to hide their mistakes. I personally have witnessed situations where something was broken accidentally or discarded in the trash. In some situations, the guilty party is easy to pinpoint. He/she would be better off to go ahead and "fess up." It never feels good to admit wrongdoing, but hiding doesn't feel good, either.

Over the years, I have made my share of blunders. I've dropped and broken numerous ultrasonic inserts and instruments. Once I forgot to close my window; rain blew in and soaked the carpet. When I was a dental assistant, I knocked the doctor's hot bead sterilizer over twice, sending a gazillion little glass beads all over the floor. One of the worst things I ever did was to drop the doctor's curing light, where it broke into several large pieces upon impact with the floor, rendering it useless. Knowing how expensive those lights are, I felt very bad over that blunder. Thank goodness, my boss understood! His remark was, "Oh well, we have another one we can use. They ought to make those lights more sturdy anyway..."

Of course, office security is important. Some practices are located in high-crime areas where an open window is an invitation to a break-in. If this describes your practice, it is understandable why leaving a window open could be viewed as a serious infraction. On the other hand, it's unproductive to make a mountain out of a molehill when the threat of a break-in is low.

In your situation, it would have been more appropriate to approach the people who most likely left the window open and say, "Tammy, is it possible that you left the window open last night?" Tammy could say, "Oh my goodness, I forgot to close it!" The doctor or office administrator says, "Well, no harm was done, but let's be more careful in the future. We sure would hate for our office to be robbed or vandalized." If the staff member denies leaving the window open, the reply could be, "OK, but could I ask for your help in the future to see that all windows are closed and locked before we leave in the evenings? I would greatly appreciate this." With this approach, no one is being blamed directly.

It's unfair when innocent people suffer for the wrongs of others, but it happens all the time. Does anyone believe that life is always fair? Your coworker displayed childish behavior in not owning up to his/her mistake.

My advice: don't sweat it! If you did nothing wrong, you have no reason to feel guilty. Put yourself in your employer's place. If the building and its contents belonged to you, would you be upset if someone left it open to possible theft or vandalism?

This is one of those situations where you can "make lemonade out of lemons." You can take a proactive stance and tell the doctor, "I didn't leave the window open, but I am willing to do my part to ensure it doesn't happen again." Your doctor will appreciate your willingness to be part of the solution!


Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Lexington, N.C. To contact Glasscoe for speaking or consulting, call (336) 472-3515, fax (336) 472-5567, or email dglasscoe@ Visit her Web site at