Addressing Your Mean Team

by Sue Jeffries, RDH, BSDH

Has your “dream team” become a “mean team”? If so, why should you care?

Beginning with the obvious, the cohesiveness of your team drives efficiency, staff and patient retention, as well as profitability. If you have a known bully on your team, and you choose to do nothing, you are allowing an insidious cancer to grow, which will undermine any hopes you might have for success. Why? Because at least one team member, and likely more, will not respect you, or your practice. Caring about this is crucial because your office culture becomes the very things you allow and promote, intentionally or not.

In preparation for a presentation, I placed a post on social media asking dental professionals working in a toxic environment to send me their stories. The response was devastatingly overwhelming. My heart was shattered. Hundreds of respondents sharing their hopelessness and despair. One after another shared that they are singled out, the butt of every joke, isolated, jeered. More sadly, many wrote of Office Managers participating in, and encouraging this behaviour. And unbelievably, stories of practice owners hiding in their offices and knowing to allow these behaviours because they do not have time or the energy to deal with “mean girl drama”. When did the suffering of others get reduced to, “mean girl drama”? Human decency aside, knowingly allowing this behaviour to continue is conscientiously deciding to pound nails into your practice’s coffin.

One submission continues to weigh heavily on my mind today. It was written by a young hygienist who is married and the mother of two small children. She shared with me that her situation at work is so dire, so humiliating, and so hopeless, that she was considering taking her own life. For her, the thought of subjecting herself to that pain one more day was that intolerable. Life is hard. Some days, dentistry is even harder. As leaders, team members, and people in general, we have a moral obligation to each other. Each of us matters and deserves to work with dignity in a safe and supportive environment. Furthermore, there is room for each of us at the table of innovative and new ideas. It’s true what they say…we are stronger together. Unfortunately, not everyone lives by this belief. Too many of our industry’s members choose instead to seek out and destroy any perceived threats, purposely destroying lives and careers. No consideration to spouses, children, parents, or siblings.

I recently witnessed a doctor being publicly ridiculed and ostracized on social media. I could barely stand to watch; it was so brutal. Yes, this doctor made a mistake in judgement, but he immediately owned his mistake and immediately apologized. Sadly, his public apology was not accepted, and his public shaming continued. When did our industry fall so low and this behaviour become acceptable? There is a difference between raising awareness of an issue and ganging up on someone. “Group think” has been the demise of many great organizations and cultures. Like pilot whales, who beach themselves as a pod and slowly die, so too will clans of humans who stand for something based solely on popular opinion. There is always more than one side. Mistakes are made. Humans are fallible. Dentistry is rapidly evolving, and in some ways, it is in the fight of its life. I submit that building one another up, rather than tearing each other down, is how we not only survive as an industry, but flourish as well. 

“Show me a perfect person and I’ll show you a liar” (Rob Lowe)

What are some actionable steps we can all take? Exercise kindness, acceptance and understanding. When this fails, you must practice personal courage by disallowing yourself to remain an easy target. Remaining so encourages your bully to continue. Avoid playing ostrich, the unresolved conflict will continue to escalate. Clearly stating the behaviours of your bully and how those behaviours impact your work will be helpful for your leadership hear. Also, don’t mince words. Tell your bully what behaviour you will not put up with in the future. Be sure to stick to your statement, do not undermine the group work you so carefully laid. Be brave and confront your bully with their own behaviour…call it out. Keep in mind, your bully acts out when they are throwing a childish tantrum, do not allow it to continue. Directly ask your bully what they recommend instead. Document your bully’s actions. Keep hard copies of all written correspondence. Look out for the coworkers and document any bullying you are witness to.

When the time comes for a formal meeting
Listen to and consider the ideas of others. Leadership must lead the way by demonstrating this behaviour themselves. Honour that when sitting down with the other party, the purpose of the meeting is to resolve the conflict. Know the outcome you’d like to see to happen and be open to receiving the wishes of others. Agree on the differences in point of views…this is the only pathway to beginning the searching for a mutually agreeable solution. Finally, always do what you agree to do.

We are all capable of neutralizing workplace bullies. In order to reclaim a conflict-free workplace, we must be persistent and courageous. Remember, others can only treat us in ways which we allow. Advocate for yourself and your team mates. And never allow yourself to become a casualty of a dysfunction practice. Love yourself more than that.

In closing, I wish to emphatically state, the safety and care of others falls solely in the lap of leadership. Consider the safety ramifications of bullying in your practice. At any moment in time, a distraught team member can become unfocused and unintentionally make a grave error in judgement or practice. Are you prepared to handle an infection control error, a clinical error in which a wrong material or solution causes an anaphylactic response, heart attack, or even worse…death? And what about the quality of care your patients deserve? Do you really think a team member who you have allowed to remain bullied cares about you or your practice? I assure you they do not.

Being kind and caring about each other, fundamentally seems so simple. Yet, in today’s workplace, it seems completely impossible. I love the dental industry. But we are to flourish, we must do better than what we are. Seek to find the beauty in one another – it does exist.

About The Author
Sue’s start in dentistry began in 1983. After twenty years as a dental technician, she retired and subsequently spent the next fifteen years practicing dental hygiene and managing dental offices. Today, Sue is the owner of Your Vivacious Practice LLC and a powerful advocate, who raises awareness on critical social and business issues of bullying, mental health, suicide, and overall well-being. She is a wife, mother, grandmother, speaker, consultant, and writer who leaves audiences laughing, crying, and empowered.

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