Workplace conflicts: Tips for the dental hygienist who wants to stay above the fray

When we graduate from dental hygiene school and enter the workforce, it is the skills that we attained and the desire to help people that drive us. We do not think when we meet a potential employer to ask about workplace dynamics, ethics, and values. We talk about office hours and salary. We do not think to ask about why the office is looking for a hygienist. This is an important question. You are interviewing the office as much as they are interviewing you.

When you are new to the field, you painstakingly have to go through a live-and-learn period—that is unless you are a lucky duck who just won the workplace lottery of nirvana. These perfect offices, by the way, do exist. They are never hiring, though, because their hygienists work there until they are 80 years old. There is a list of applicants waiting for interviews, and the office never has to advertise when they are hiring. When you have worked in the worst offices, you can quickly identify the best offices.

One major elephant in the room when it comes to the workplace is workplace conflict because unfortunately it is such a common occurrence. There are few offices that coexist peacefully. If you so happen to work in such an office and have no idea of what I am talking about, consider yourself a diamond in the rough.

There are many ingredients to this perfect storm in the workplace that are out of our control. The personality, ego, and work ethic of each team member, a theory of an existing delusional hierarchy within an office, a conflict of interest when the employer’s family works at the office, and the cherry on top of the cake is the lack of leadership from the employer. Beware of the passive boss, the one who wants to be your friend more than your boss. When your boss is everyone’s friend, disaster is surely to follow. Not to say you can’t be friendly with the boss, but tread lightly.

The role of leadership

The boss should be looked upon as being the leader, the one in charge and also the main team player who should set an example. When the boss is on the same level as everyone else, there is no true guidance. They should be the role model, not the follower.

Respect is a huge, huge part of leadership. When the boss becomes friends and gets too close with the employees, sometimes respect is lost. If the boss is constantly in a bad mood, the team is in a bad mood. If the boss is a pessimist, it really brings the team down and production goes down. When production goes down, the boss gets into an even worse mood. If the boss allows drama, favoritism, and petty issues to continue, you feel emotionally drained, underappreciated, and not so excited about going to work. This type of weight really makes it challenging for you to be the best hygienist that your patients deserve, the hygienist that you truly are when you are not in the fishbowl.

How do you survive and thrive in workplace conflicted offices? The first step is to take a step back and assess the true issue.

Hard to find a greener pasture

If the issue is the boss, you have to determine if you can not only survive but thrive. If the situation cannot be changed and your mental health is at stake, look for another position. This is not an easy task in our field these days.

Also, keep in mind that in most offices there are issues. You may end up in a worse office that makes your current situation looks like a beautiful puppy playing with a ball on a sunny day. It is a very difficult situation to jump from job to job just to find out that all offices typically have some type of issue. They are not perfect; they are human. Text book is not reality. It should be and your practice should be text book, but offices slip so far from text book that you have to find your comfort level for you.

Can the hygienist be a positive force?

Is the main issue the coworkers, and not the boss? One of the top reasons hygienists are having issues in the office with staff in other departments is that our salary is so much higher. I know we are totally justifying our salary. If anything, we are undercompensated. We are, after all, a producer where others are not. It is not our fault, but that is how the dynamic is.

How can we get around this without being used as well? Helping at the end of the day with tasks like gathering trash, washing uniforms, or pulling charts is a good start—basically being a team player within a respected team. You must see the respect back and not get used in this process, though.

Can you be so positive that you carry the office? It is an extremely hard and draining attempt, but it may pay off for you. It has to be a consistent attempt and you can’t take other’s snide remarks personally. When you try to be positive, the negative nellies may just react to bring you down. Don’t let them. Instead embrace them and lift them up too.

Snap jars, office team meetings, team building, and other activities will work. They are a bit corny, but again they build respect for others, which is really a huge part of the puzzle that is sometimes missing. When people feel valued they bring value. Showing the negative people that you can lift them and are interested in building respect should help smooth things over. Keeping a consistent positive attitude, thick skin, team work and good work ethics should carry you through.

Staying clear of the drama

Do not take workplace drama personally. It does not define you; do not let it consume you. There are so many hygienists I know who have fallen into this trap. It’s sad and their light truly dims in their surroundings.

Try to keep your energy focused and positive. You can achieve the positive energy through yoga, staying off of social media, being active, and eating right. Also, do not allow other staff members’ negative energy pull you into their negative space. Be above it. Understand that they must have something they are carrying to bring them to that negative level, and that is not your problem. Do not allow others to affect your health in that way.

You are needed to be a positive light to yourself, your patients, and your family. This has all been learned through hard experience and by making mistakes in thinking other offices would not be so toxic. The bottom line is they are toxic if you allow them to be. Make the best of the situation but also recognize your limit. When your best has been put out there and you are still having a hard time, evaluate if the job is taxing your health. Life is short. Live it. Change it. Enjoy it. Learn from it. You are the driver in your life. Catapult and define the work atmosphere you want to work in, and don’t let it define you.

This article first appeared on the DentistryIQ website, copyright 2016. Full text reprinted with permission of PennWell Corporation.

About the Author:

Nicole Giesey, RDH, MSPTE, enjoys researching, writing, and educating on topics related to dental hygiene. She is the dental hygiene product specialist for Maxill. She can be contacted at