Territorialism and cliques

Aug. 1, 2011
For the past 10 years, I've worked in an office with two other hygienists and two doctors. There are three hygiene operatories.

by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA
[email protected]

Dear Dianne,

For the past 10 years, I've worked in an office with two other hygienists and two doctors. There are three hygiene operatories. One day, my coworker asked me if I knew the whereabouts of a particular instrument. Since I didn't have what she was looking for, we went to the other operatory to look. One of the dental assistants saw us in the other operatory searching for the instrument. She told the hygienist who uses that room that she saw us taking things from her room and that she should "watch her back" with me. My coworker called me at home and chewed me out for being in her room.

Now I feel she is trying to sabotage my job. In a strange turn of events, she and the other hygienist have formed a tight clique. They leave me out of everything and have even written notes in patients' charts that hurt me very much and question the treatment I recommend for patients.

I love what I do, and I love the patients I've been seeing for years now. This tension and struggle has made my confidence as a hygienist decline. There is no unity within the office. It gives me knots in my stomach to think about it and to prepare myself each time I go in to work. Never have I had these feelings going in to work. It's crazy! Sometimes I feel like I'm going into a battlefield. Can you help me sort this out?

Feeling left out

Dear Feeling,

It sounds like there are some serious interpersonal problems that have taken root in your office. No doubt, there is at least one "pot-stirrer" in the bunch. The formation of cliques often leads to gossip and hurt feelings, and the workplace can become toxic.

The first issue that you identified is territorialism. We're kind of like cats, which are highly territorial by nature. If a cat feels like she doesn't have proper territory or that her territory is being encroached upon, aggressive behaviors may ensue. Most hygienists have an assigned operatory and have set up "their" room in a way that is comfortable to them. We put things in places where we know we can find them, and we don't like it when people come into our space and change things. We also don't like it when people take things from our workspace without asking.

You took it upon yourself to help your coworker locate an instrument. Did you also make sure she put it back where she found it when she was finished using it? Would you like it if your coworkers took things from your operatory in your absence and didn't return them? Maybe the doctor needs to order additional instruments so everyone will have an adequate supply. In most situations, the equipment and tools belong to the practice, not any particular individual. However, that doesn't stop us from laying claim on certain items.

I do not like sharing instruments. It's best when each hygienist has his or her own instrument sets and is responsible for keeping them sharp and well maintained. There is great variability among hygienists with regard to sharpening. Hygienists who do not have good sharpening skills can ruin instruments. Wars have been known to break out in offices when one hygienist accuses another one of not sharpening correctly.

What disturbs me more than the territorialism is the dental assistant's behavior. Who made her the office police? What was the real reason she chose to create resentment between you and your coworker? Who would have guessed that her little bit of juicy gossip would have caused so much resentment and pain?

Your second issue is the office clique. Workplace cliques are a near universal reality. All cliques are not negative, as they are part of natural social interaction. They become problematic when they cause the workplace environment to become stressful and tense. Workplace cliques affect productivity. Cliques that occupy time with gossiping and complaining drain energy from the group. In your situation, it sounds like the kindergarten antics of "two's company, three's a crowd." According to an article by Tom Gray entitled "Workplace Cliques: Coping with the Toxic, Joining the Healthy," the way you respond to a workplace clique depends on your need to belong. He writes, "Not all people require the same degree of social interaction and bonding at work. Some meet their relationship needs mainly outside the workplace; others hope to make plenty of friends on the job. You should look at your own personality to see which type you are."

Clinical notes should not contain opinion or derogatory remarks about any other clinician in the office. The one who writes derogatory remarks poses a liability risk to the owner of the practice. For example, if someone writes, "thick, deep calculus at #30 D obviously of long duration," this infers that someone did not do a thorough job in the past. Such inferences increase liability risk. In my opinion, derogatory remarks in the patient chart cross an ethical line that should be addressed directly with the one who recorded the remarks. I would ask, "What was your purpose in writing this note? Are you trying to discredit me with the doctors? Would you like it if I wrote similar things about the treatment you provide? Are you trying to sabotage my job?"

Your coworkers are acting like children. Here's what you should do. Are you listening? Kill them with kindness. That's right. If you've done nothing wrong, then learn to let this slide. Go to work and do your best for the patients. Be kind and helpful to everyone, even those who have been unkind, and rise above this situation. When you are kind to people, it makes it hard for them to be unkind back. I think this may be why Jesus taught, "Love your enemies." Don't let their antics get you down. You're a good hygienist. Think about this. You've been there 10 years. If you were not a competent hygienist, do you think you would have kept your job this long? You have some gossipy, pot-stirring coworkers. Vow to NEVER partake of their gossip stew.

And grow a spine. A little direct and unemotional (not angry or tearful) questioning is a way to show your coworkers you want to know if there's a problem you need to correct. "In the future, come directly to me, and please do not sabotage my job. In return, I'll cut you the same slack. None of us are perfect. If I make a mistake, I want to know about it. And I'll do the same for you. Deal? Thanks, I knew you'd understand."

People can hurt you only to the degree that you allow them to hurt you. Stand up for yourself, and ignore office cliques. You'll be a lot better off!

Best wishes,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Frederick, Md. To contact Glasscoe Watterson for speaking or consulting, call (301) 874-5240 or email [email protected]. Visit her website at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com.

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