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Creating A Complaint-Free Practice

We might not like to admit it, but we all contribute to perpetuating a culture of complaints. There is a sense of power when you complain. You are the aggrieved, innocent party who is owed resolution.  In some cases, this is accurate – someone else was truly at fault. But many of us engage in constant complaining and its twin sister blaming. And since no one likes being the subject of a complaint, when things go wrong, our first impulse is to find someone or something else to blame.

As a dental consultant for over 20 years, I have an inside peak at how this plays out in the practice. If an appointment runs over, it’s the diva hygienist’s fault. If a patient doesn’t show, it’s the appointment coordinator’s fault for not confirming.  If a treatment plan isn’t accurate, it’s the lazy dentist’s fault.  I see entire teams take turns blaming and scapegoating one another. The end result is a team powered by fear and defensiveness. 

There has got to be a better way.

When Does Complaining Go Bad?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes the word “complaint” as “an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction.” Another definition describes it as “a statement in which you express your dissatisfaction with a situation.” There is nothing inherently wrong with saying you are dissatisfied. In fact, this can be an important piece of feedback.

The troubles begin when the complaint is not attached to ownership and when it is used as a weapon.

Following are examples of complaints I’ve heard from team members in the last two weeks.

  • “She didn’t tell me I was supposed to do that.”
  • “He always makes deals with patients and then doesn’t tell us about them.”
  • “She only cares about her schedule.”
  • “She’s too passive. I always have to tell her what to do.”

Could these statements be accurate descriptions of a situation? Possibly. Will these statements do anything to resolve the situation? Unlikely.  These statements don’t just express dissatisfaction. They absolve the speaker by implicating another person.  What these team members are really saying is, “Sharyn, you need to tell that other no-good, rotten person to change because they are messing up.”

Changing Complaints into Contribution

So, what should we do when we are disappointed by another? If complaining doesn’t engender change, what does?  How can the practice leader change a culture where blaming and shaming are a team sport?

Simply telling your team that they can’t complain, isn’t going to work. They will inevitably complain about not being able to complain! The best route is to acknowledge that it can be okay to complain, but a complaint is an inspiration to have a conversation – it’s not the end goal.  The goal shouldn’t be to assign culpability but to find a mutual solution.

This is the part where things get interesting. The benefit of complaining is that it implies you are not responsible for the bad result; it’s the other party that needs to change.

But the message “I am good, you are bad” is not conducive to solving a problem and it’s rarely true anyway.

To really solve issues, you have to be able to acknowledge your part in the situation and you need to do it out loud.

Contribution and Ownership

The way out is the word “contribution.”  Resolving a situation, means owning your part. Your part may have been to be unclear, or contradictory or impatient. Your contribution may have been to make negative assumptions or judgments about the other person or by tolerating behavior without being honest. Even if the other person is 80% at fault; you have done or not something that contributed 20%.

When someone recognizes their contribution, they take ownership of their behavior and they acknowledge that they also need to change in order to get better results. Here’s how acknowledging your contribution and taking ownership would sound with the examples I used earlier.

She didn’t tell me I was supposed to do that.  I didn’t ask enough questions and so I was unclear about what was expected.
He always makes deals with patients and then doesn’t tell us about them.”  I need to talk with him about developing a better system of communication
She only cares about her schedule.”  I respect her concern for her own patients and I’d like to help her extend that concern towards all of our patients
She’s too passive. I always have to tell her what to do.”I haven’t been clear about how I’d like her to initiate projects

Do the Complaint Challenge

You and your team may need some training on how to adapt an ownership mindset which is what I’ve been doing this with several teams lately. But you can introduce the topic with a *fun* challenge for your team. Some years ago, Will Bowen developed an ingenious challenge to inspire a complaint-free world.  He asked folks simply to wear a rubber purple bracelet on the same wrist for 21 days. But here is the rub (there’s always one!). Any time you complain, you transfer your bracelet to the opposite wrist and start over. I didn’t last 2 days. I kept saying, I wasn’t complaining; I was “observing” but of course, I was also being less than honest.

You can get the purple bracelets here: ( or on Amazon or for those of you who are really thrifty, get free purple bands at the produce section in your supermarket.

Here’s to a complaint-free dental practice!

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Inspired Us to Dream Bigger, and it Works

“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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