Th 225234

Follow the leader

Sept. 1, 2006
Leadership is manifested through communication. Norman Allen wrote, “Skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success.
Click here to enlarge image

Leadership is manifested through communication. Norman Allen wrote, “Skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success.” Effective leaders must understand and be understood by their teams. But who are the dental office leaders? The answer may not be as simple as it seems.

Owner dentists, office managers, team leaders, and others perform leadership roles in dental offices. Leaders can be hired or assigned, but they can also emerge from a group. I believe all dental hygienists are leaders and that there are many ways to lead.

Actions are powerful influences. Dental hygienists lead when they read articles, take continuing-education courses, and share new information with their co-workers. They lead when they introduce new products, model excellent care and relations with patients and co-workers, and purchase their own equipment. They lead when they listen to co-workers’ problems and help when necessary, and show integrity and stand up for their principles. Since dental hygienists lead in many ways, it’s important that they understand the leadership qualities that contribute to team success.

Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto (L&L) conducted an in-depth study of 32 effective teams. These included the U.S. Space Command, The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, a Mt. Everest expedition, a hospital board of directors, several sports teams, a variety of successful businesses, a cardiac surgery team, a theatrical production, a Navy ship, and a CDC epidemiological team. Though the teams represented many fields and functions, their attributes were strikingly similar. The researchers identified eight principles of highly effective teams, which must be created, communicated, and applied by outstanding leaders.

There are ways to relate these principles in dental offices. Communication is central to all of them. The eight principles will sound familiar to many dental hygienists, and knowledge of these principles can guide hygienists who want to improve their employment situations in either their present or new positions.

First, teams must have clear, elevating goals. Clarity refers to the importance of communicating a goal so that members know whether or not it is being met. Elevating means that the goal must also be important to the members; they must feel their efforts are being applied to a worthwhile cause. While high-production goals are important, production goals alone may not be particularly inspiring, even if team members receive monetary compensation for their achievement. Most health-care providers entered the field because they want to help people, so it makes sense that goals that inspire such people include benefits to clientele as well as to businesses.

These two types of goals do not need to be mutually exclusive. L&L found that teams that functioned poorly were usually confused or distracted from their goals. Leaders need to be aware of this so that they can convey the value of goals to team members, maintain focus, and apply it in daily practice.

Teams must also possess a results-driven structure that includes clear roles and accountabilities for leaders and team members, an effective communication system, and methods for monitoring performance and providing feedback. In health care, where mistakes can cost people their health or even their lives, team members must communicate clearly through efficient systems. Individuals must be allowed a certain amount of autonomy based on mutual trust to act appropriately in any circumstance. The principles of evidence-based practice can guide dental professionals toward achieving this for their teams.

Third, teams need competent members capable of accomplishing the team’s goals. Competence is technical skill as well as interpersonal proficiency. Competent individuals, besides being excellent clinicians and communicators, are sensitive to others, loyal, committed, responsive, and display integrity, self-reliance, and cooperation. We can all think of team members who lack some of these characteristics, but the focus here is on ourselves. As leaders, we need to take personal inventories of our own abilities and efforts. No one is perfect. There are always ways to do better. Effective leaders are also avid learners.

Fourth, effective teams need a unified commitment. Commitment refers to one’s dedication to the team and includes intangibles such as mental and physical energy, extra effort, and working well together. Unity involves identification with one’s team. Some members of stellar teams become so involved with their teammates and goals that they actually redefine their identities to incorporate team membership.

Unified commitment grows through involvement and participation in the group’s strategic planning. Many leaders do not understand this. People who have a role in planning goals and activities are more committed to the team’s success. This can go both ways. As an employee, you want a say in how you practice. But as a leader, it makes sense to advance the same courtesy to those who look to you for leadership. Commitment is enhanced when competent people have a say in establishing goals.

All of these characteristics contribute to the fifth dimension, a collaborative climate. Competent teams effectively coordinate their effort, which requires excellent communication. Honesty, openness, consistency, and respect among team members all contribute to the important and fragile feature called trust. Without trust, very little can be accomplished, and with it, there is no end to the possibilities. Trust allows open and honest communication, allows members the freedom to take innovative risks without fear, and promotes compensation, or making up for each other’s limitations. There is optimism in a collaborative office as opposed to the oppressive atmosphere of a team that does not trust or communicate well.

Standards of excellence is the sixth dimension of effective teams. High levels of performance can emanate from one’s own integrity, team pressure, concern for a patient’s well-being, or the team leader and organization. These standards are hard to maintain; that is why trust, cooperation, and communication are critical.

The seventh critical characteristic of outstanding teams is external support and recognition. People should be acknowledged for exceptional skill and effort. This refers to recognition not only from within the team but from outside the team, such as colleagues or patients. An absence of acknowledgement can lower morale, confidence, commitment, and loyalty. Quality people need both verbal and tangible recognition. Even though a reasonable and attainable bonus system is welcome, many leaders seem unaware of the power of a simple “thank you.”

The final critical dimension of effective teams is principled leadership. By motivating, setting standards, and creating a supportive climate, the leader can make the difference between a group’s success and failure. A transformational leader imparts a vision that stimulates, elevates, and empowers team members.

Outstanding leaders strengthen their teams by recognizing and fostering the leadership qualities of their group. They allow team members the independence to achieve the group’s goals. Maxwell Johnston wrote, “A good leader makes opportunities for others to succeed.” That success is stunted by two problems in team leaders: an unwillingness to deal with inadequate team members, and a tendency to overload teams with too many priorities, thus diluting their efforts.

Of these eight principles, L&L noted that the most fundamental building blocks of successful teams were a clear goal, competent team members, and standards of excellence. When considering teams for their study, the researchers found that those without these characteristics either did not last long enough to be successful or would not submit themselves to investigation.

All eight characteristics of successful teams are interrelated. A principled and competent leader will establish clear and elevating goals, create a results-driven structure and collaborative climate, and hire committed team members whose efforts they support and recognize. Consider how you as a leader can apply and benefit from these principles. Such leaders create dream jobs.


• Larson CE, LaFasto FM. TeamWork: what must go right/what can go wrong. Newbury Park: Sage Publications 1989.

Toni S. Adams, RDH, BA, practiced as a dental hygienist for 26 years and loved working in a variety of offices before retiring due to hand problems. She subsequently earned a bachelor’s in communication studies and has completed all but her thesis toward a master’s in the same field, focusing on health, instructional, and intercultural communication. She enjoys writing for and speaking to dental professionals about communication issues, has won awards for speaking, writing, leadership, and scholarship, has taught university level public speaking classes, and is currently writing a communication handbook for dental hygienists. She welcomes comments and inquiries to [email protected].