Building Staff Relationships: The Tale of Two Offices

Staff relationships can make or break a dental practice. We look at ways to avoid unnecessary turnover and value every team member, improving workplace morale and overall success.

By Carol Dalkhe, MSDH

Building positive, healthy relationships within the dental team is imperative to a successful dental practice. These relationships are central to the team and can foster tremendous success or bitter frustration – especially in the current workplace labor shortage. I'll use two scenarios of possible situations between dentist and staff and provide tips on the best ways to build strong, valued relationships while avoiding high turnover and low morale which compromises the achievements of the entire dental staff.

Scenario One: Dr. Sarah

Dr. Sarah has been in dentistry for 35 years and has a loyal following of patients. She's taken many advanced continuing education classes over the years and enjoys cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Sarah is there for her patients and she will tell anyone they are her number one priority. As a perfectionist, she is happy to point out to her team members when they need to adjust when treating her patients. This may happen when the patient is in the chair. Sarcasm is alive and thriving in this practice. Sarah has been known to have conversations about prior team members when she is frustrated with her team’s behavior. The constant chatter about prior team members makes the current team members wonder what she says about them when they are not there.

Sarah does not know anything personal about her team. She was taught that business is business and her personal life needed to be separate. Although this model had served her well in the early part of her career, it is an outdated practice now. Dr. Sarah has had a lot of team turnover in the past several years. She can only hire temp hygienists from two select agencies in town who will work with her. Her reputation for harshness is the reason many potential team members won’t even apply to work with her.

Scenario Two: Dr. Ben

Dr. Ben had just bought into a practice. He enjoys dentistry, is very focused on his success and doesn't really want to be involved in the day-to-day management of his new team. One day he had a very loud and disturbing conversation with the other two partners of the practice. Dr. Ben went home that night and made the decision that he needed to have someone on his side. The decision to work on his relationship with his team members was pivotal. Being intentional with each team member over the course of the day, having short brief conversations, slowly built up the trust the team needed to see in him. He can now be found having witty exchanges with his treatment assistants daily. Laughter can be heard frequently throughout the office when Dr. Ben is around. 

Ben will tell you that the best decision he could have made for his practice was caring about his team. He will admit that he had been focused on himself and what he needed to get through his day. When he realized the value of having a relationship with the assistants, hygienists, and business associates, and how it would change the practice, he wishes he would have started it much earlier in his career. 

The power of relationships in dentistry is critical to the success of a dental practice. Relationships need to start with your team and then filter through to your patients. Sarah lacks proper communication skills to build her team. One of her business assistants said, “If she treated us as well as she treats her patients, it would be a wonderful place to work.” What a powerful statement.

Building Solid Relationships

What exactly is the difference between these two offices? We have two great doctors who both care about their patients and perform beautiful dentistry. Ben truly cares about his team; he will do anything for them if they need his help. In turn, they will do the same for him which includes taking great care of the patients. He has empowered them to be their best by allowing them to practice to the full scope of their license. He trusts them and has communicated this to them.

Sarah does not trust her team. To her, they will only let her down like they have always done. She must stay late to rewrite their notes, reprocess the instruments and disinfect rooms because they “don’t do it right.” The communication in the office is built on power and sarcasm.

Empowering your team by communicating with them on a regular basis to build a relationship will help you build the practice of your dreams. Spending thirty seconds with a team member, checking in and asking how their weekend went, can make the difference between building a new office or wondering where your next lease payment is going to come from.

Some steps Sarah could use for more successful communication:

  1. Say good morning (or good afternoon) and mean it!
  2. Speak with kindness in your voice, always. If someone hears harshness, they will become defensive, and most likely will stop listening to you.
  3. Never speak about staff issues in front of patients or uninvolved parties. Keep those conversations private and avoid personal attacks. Give the respect you want in return.
  4. Be aware of other’s feelings. Empathy goes a long way to the success of a practice.
  5. Invest in time to train your entire team properly and have patience. If you need things done a certain way, make sure that is clearly communicated to everyone.
  6. The team will always remember if you made them feel special. Compliments of work well done can have a significant impact.


Author: Carol Dahlke, MSDH is President and Founder of Optimum Dental Consulting and Coaching. She serves as faculty at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry teaching D1 students Periodontology Technique, has provided 26 years of care to patients as a clinical dental hygienist, along with 12 years of dental practice management training to general dentists and periodontists throughout the United States and Canada. Her website is

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