Hygiene, Heart, and Leadership: Transforming Dental Office Culture

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It was my first clinical hygiene job outside of school. I was excited, nervous (read: terrified), and ready to begin my next journey in life, my profession! Unfortunately, it wasn’t the dream for which I was hoping.

I grew up in a dental office and assisted my dad from the time I was in high school. I even helped run his front office before I left for hygiene school. In my naive brain, I figured all bosses were like my dad – caring, quiet, helpful, happy – all the qualities you want in a dad and, quite frankly, a boss. At the time, I didn’t understand office culture. I always just had my dad’s office as my experience. I thought kindness was a given.

Had I worked in jobs that didn’t ever meet my expectations of a happy and healthy environment? Yes! For some reason, when I entered a professional environment, wanting to help others as a new registered dental hygienist, I felt that there would be a collective understanding of a positive office culture.

Boy, was I wrong! I was lucky in that I could leave very soon after I found out how much micromanaging was taking place and how the office put profit over people (patients and employees). I felt in my gut that it wasn’t right. Not all hygienists are in the position to do that.

Leading a Culture of Kindness

If this sounds familiar, this article is for you. I want to reach all of you who are struggling in your offices and hopefully empower you to be a leader in your own world. To your family, friends, co-workers, patients, and everyone you encounter, being a leader is an effective way to start moving a culture of kindness into your life and the lives around you.

Simon Sinek published a terrific book in 2014 called Leaders Eat Last. If you are an employer, this should be standard reading before owning a business. One of the key points in this is that “true leaders prioritize the well-being of their team members, which creates a culture of trust and cooperation.”1

If you are an employee, understand that many dentists we work under were never given a leadership class. They didn’t get an accounting degree, so they hired an accountant. If they never learned to be a good leader, how can they own a business and now employ multiple people? Luckily, some employers develop good leadership skills in other ways, such as personal studies, church, or volunteer organizations they belong to.

However, I am sure we all know that one employer who never got a memo on how to be a good leader. What do we do when we have that one boss who never learned how to lead? I am going to provide three ways you can empower yourself as a leader within your office and improve your workplace culture, regardless of whether your boss will change or not. Who knows, suppose they see your leadership qualities, and it will open their eyes to something they never learned before.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

How can people know your feelings about your environment if you never told them? The key here is the difference between communicating your needs or concerns to your boss and discussing how miserable you are to everyone else but your boss.

The other important aspect is to write down those things that you are having a challenging time with. Go back after a week and determine if they are still a concern. Sometimes, we just have a difficult day. Occasionally, our home chaos makes us a little more on edge at work, or the fuse is a bit shorter – that is a human characteristic.

Writing those down in the moment of feeling them and then addressing them a week later will give you more perspective on whether that moment was exactly that, a moment, or if you truly are experiencing consistent difficulties. Once you realize you have valid needs/concerns, take those directly to your chain of command (my military spouse is showing here). If you don’t have a chain of command, take your concerns to the boss or dentist.

I also recommend that if there are situations that you are struggling with, try to brainstorm remedies. Many bosses have a lot going on, and for them to produce a solution that would keep you happy might not be on their list. So, providing a list of practical solutions they can draw from may expedite solving the problem.

Give your boss the benefit of the doubt. They may have had no clue you are struggling. I have worked in offices where the doctor stays in their office with the door closed during the times they aren’t doing exams or working on a patient. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Communicating with your boss kindly, giving them the “why” you are concerned, and how you could see the concern being addressed could be just what you need, and they need to make your workplace culture more positive.

You Are a Leader!

You are a leader at home within your family structure. You are a leader in your state or local dental hygiene association, within your church family, or even among your friends. You are most definitely a leader to your patients! Who do they spend most of their time listening to, educating on improving their oral and overall health? You! So, start to believe in yourself as a leader.

Your boss may not see you as a partner in the office, but you are a licensed practitioner providing billable procedures. If, in your mind, you are carrying yourself as a partner, you will start to see yourself as a leader. Having that mindset will make your ability to address negative or toxic bosses a much easier process.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review written by Matt Mayberry, a former NFL linebacker, an internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, and global expert in leadership, cultural change, and organizational performance, he discusses that most people don’t consider themselves leaders unless it is in their job description.2

During Mayberry’s years of speaking and consulting, he found that the employees have more influence than their managers. One of his best quotes is, “Leadership at work is the ability and desire to accept responsibility for your career.”2

If you feel you don’t have leadership qualities (if you are a dental hygienist, I can guarantee I can find many), it is recommended to go and do your own leadership work. Dedicate time to develop your own growth. This is a fantastic way to learn great leadership qualities but also how to work effectively with others, including your boss.

Give Grace!

A friend shared an interesting way of handling anyone having a bad day with me. It could be someone yelling and honking their horn at you when you didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe it’s the checkout lady at the store who didn’t seem happy even to be there. Or, at your job, you get talked down to by your boss in front of a patient in the chair.

In these situations, we may get mad, think the worst of the person, and wonder why they hate us. However, what if that person driving just had a loved one get into a bad accident, and they needed to get to them quickly? What if the checkout lady has a sick child at home, and she still must go to work because of their financial situation? What if your boss just got done dealing with an exceedingly difficult patient, and they couldn’t be happy with anything?

Being empathetic with the people around us, including our bosses, keeps them human, even if being empathetic means making up a story in your head just to save your own mental health. This is the lesson my friend taught me.

Empathy and grace are not just for your boss or co-workers who are having a tough time being kind, but also for yourself! If you have tried all the things to get your culture in the workplace to be more positive and kinder, and to no avail, then you need to prioritize yourself and your mental health.

A 2023 study by the American Psychological Association found that out of 2,515 employed adults surveyed, 19% said that their workplace was very or somewhat toxic. “Those who reported a toxic workplace were more than three times as likely to have said they experienced harm to their mental health at work than those who reported a healthy workplace (52% vs. 15%).”3

Next Steps

If you need to get out for yourself, then try everything in your power to do so. Maybe it’s reaching out to your local dental hygiene association to ask if they know of anyone who might be hiring. Maybe you can drop off your resume at offices to let them know you are looking for a change or that you might want to temp for a bit to see if it’s a good fit for you. There are many temping organizations that you could reach out to.

It is not worth staying in a truly negative office culture if those around you aren’t willing to improve the working environment.

It is hard to make the transition after coming out of a toxic workplace culture. I was on edge the whole time I was starting in a new office. When you experience toxicity in one office, it is difficult to separate that from an unfamiliar environment. Go with your gut. Sometimes, you can tell right away that you will be in a better place.

When that happens, request a meeting with your doctor or boss to start off on the right foot of establishing communication, letting them know you are looking to them to lead you and that, in turn, you will be a leader to your colleagues and your patients. Always, always, always be empathetic and give grace.

We should all strive for a culture of kindness in our office. If your office maintains that type of culture, your patients will feel it, your mental health will thank you, and the whole office will operate more efficiently and effectively.

Before you leave, check out the Today’s RDH self-study CE courses. All courses are peer-reviewed and non-sponsored to focus solely on high-quality education. Click here now.

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  1. Sinek, S. (2017). Leaders Eat Last. Portfolio Penguin.
  2. Mayberry, M. (2023, February 13). You Don’t Need to Be “the Boss” to Be a Leader. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/02/you-dont-need-to-be-the-boss-to-be-a-leader
  3. APA Poll Reveals Toxic Workplaces, Other Significant Workplace Mental Health Challenges. (2023, July 13). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/07/work-mental-health-challenges