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Managing Challenging Employees


Do you feel like you’re being held hostage by your team? Are you dreaming of sandy beaches just to escape difficult or disappointing employees? Partly due to the Great Resignation, many dentists believe they are stuck with under-performing team members. The thinking seems to be that any staff, even if they drive you crazy, is better than no staff.

But is this really an either/or situation? Just like Dorothy and her red shoes, you can free yourself.  The question is, how do you work with the team you have now and develop them into the team you really want? How can you manage challenging employees?

Does This Drive You Crazy?

My clients share that the employee behavior they find the most frustrating is inconsistent performance. You give feedback to an under-performing employee. The employee nods and agrees to change, and does change for a while, but then within a few weeks, regresses back to the original behavior.

This is quite common because we generally find it hard to change ingrained habits, even when those behaviors don’t get us great results. But when you’re the boss, having team members who need continual prodding, poking and follow-up can make you so insane that early retirement is seductive.

The Carrot and Stick Approach

When you have an employee who isn’t doing what you want them to be doing, you may have tried some version of the carrot and stick approach.  You offer a reward (verbal or monetary) for every time the employee engages in the new behavior or you deliver a punishment when they regress (such as a disciplinary letter).  The carrot/stick model is widely accepted as the best way to motivate employees. But there are problems with it.

First of all, do you know where this term originated? It’s the method used by donkey owners to get their donkeys to move. Just think about that for a second. You want your highly paid, highly educated hygienist to change her verbiage with patients by either giving her the human equivalent of a carrot or by disciplining her with an acceptable version of a stick across her back. The carrot/stick approach doesn’t make long-term behavior stick because it is so reliant on you rewarding or punishing the employee.  This method reinforces the message that employees will change only when you act as the enforcer or giver of goodies.

Regardless of how frustrated you may be, I hope that you will agree that your employees are not animals and that treating them like you would a stubborn donkey is insulting and ultimately ineffective.

The Maternal/Paternal Approach

Another mistake I see dentists make is to view their employees like annoying teenagers and nag them into better behavior. If you find yourself saying things like, “Didn’t I tell you to do this last week?” or “How come the other assistant can do this and you can’t?” or “I’m sick of having to remind you,” then you are not communicating on an adult-to-adult level. It shouldn’t be a big surprise then, when your employees respond like teenagers and tune you out.

The CPR Model

So, what can you do? There has got to be a way to address employee behavior in a way that is respectful, effective and appropriate for the workplace.  I love the CPR method of giving feedback as described in the book Crucial Accountability (2013, VitalSmarts, LLC) This method enables you to use adult to adult communication, share the impact of the behavior and describe the consequences of continual non-compliance. 

  1. The first time something happens, you talk about the CONTENT of what happened. “Esmeralda, I’ve noticed that you haven’t pre-blocked our team meetings into the schedule. These meetings are important because they enable us to have conversations that will improve the practice.  They are non-negotiable. When will you be able to reserve those times?”
  2. If the behavior reoccurs, then talk about the PATTERN.

“Esmeralda, a few weeks ago we talked about the importance of reserving meeting times. I see that we have patients scheduled into this month’s meeting. I’m noticing a pattern in your performance. When I ask you to do something, it isn’t being done consistently. What do you believe is getting in the way of being consistent? What are you willing to commit to so that you can be more consistent and reliable?” 

3. If the behavior still doesn’t change, share how this is affecting your RELATIONSHIP with the employee.

“This situation is putting a strain on our practice. The pattern of breaking your agreements with me has affected my level of trust with you. This is not the relationship I want for us. We need to talk about the kind of working relationship you and I want to have.”

Accountability and Ownership

The key reason that neither the carrot/stick or maternal/paternal methods work is that they don’t ask the employee to take accountability for their actions or to take ownership of the problem. You are working with adults (not kids or donkeys) so your chief focus shouldn’t be on getting obedience but on getting ownership. When employees truly own a situation and feel accountable for their results, they are internally motivated to change. You don’t need to bribe, punish or threaten.

How do you inspire your employees to change? Here are several ways to communicate that are designed to ignite the employee’s internal motivation.

TechniqueHow it Sounds
Link the situation to the employee’s values or self-image.   Employees are motivated to change when the new behavior aligns with their personal values or the way they want to see themselves.  “Esmeralda, you present yourself as someone who is responsible and trustworthy and that is why you have such a pivotal role at the front desk. I am counting on you to protect our practice by reserving these meeting times.”
Focus on long-term benefits vs short-term gains.   Many well-meaning employees don’t implement policies because they don’t like disappointing patients. Show the employee that this behavior actually hurts the practice in the long run.“Esmeralda, I appreciate how concerned you are that patients get help as quickly as possible and I recognize that is why you have been scheduling them into our meeting times.   But I’m wondering if you’ve thought about how this damages us in the long run. What do you see as the consequences in continuing to do this?”
Show the consequences to their relationships.   Employees usually do care about how they are perceived and they want to be liked and respected by their colleagues. Share how the employee’s behavior undercuts their reputation or hurts their co-workers.“Esmeralda, I’m wondering if you’ve considered how your colleagues feel about patients being scheduled into our lunch and meeting times. I see them looking stressed and frustrated by these last-minute additions. So, while your intention is to help the patient, this behavior is hurting your colleagues.   How do you feel about this? How do you think they perceive you when you do this?”
Describe the benefits of the desired behavior.   Link the new behavior to something the employee values.“Esmeralda, I know you would like to be promoted to an office manager position. Preserving our meeting time is one way to show me that you are ready for that responsibility.”

Note that this type of communication is respectful and direct. Instead of pressuring the employee to change in order to appease you, the focus is on helping the employee see how their behaviors and decisions affect themselves and their colleagues. Employees get to make their own decisions about whether they want those consequences. Finally, remember that change can be hard. Your employee may sincerely want to change, but may need additional training, support or resources to do so effectively.  That is why conversations about performance need to be dialogues rather than monologues.  

This article was published in Dental Economics

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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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