5 signs and fixes for toxic practice culture

While it is difficult for many managers to admit toxicity in their workplace culture, assessing it and addressing it head-on is necessary.

As a dentist, a manager, or an executive, it may be hard to admit to yourself that the culture in your practice is toxic. The good news is that by identifying the problems and remedying them can quickly improve your practice’s morale, engagement, productivity, and retention. It will also be the fabric of your brand story.

If your employees are tired, burnt out, or discouraged, those are all warning signs that the practice’s culture may be toxic. Unhappy workers are prone to making more mistakes, being less productive and are more likely to seek alternative employment.

A company’s culture is not just behaviors. It also includes beliefs and values. To create true and lasting change, you must tackle cultural issues on every level.

It is imperative that you act swiftly to improve a negative practice environment before productivity lags and employees begin to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Below are five steps to help you reverse a toxic work environment: 

1) Identify the underlying problem behaviors

Since each practice and company is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to repair a sagging work culture.

You must first examine your practice or business culture to identify the challenges that are specific to you. The best way to do this is simply looking around you. Before your practice is able to change for the better, you must face any uncomfortable truths head-on.

Common warning signs your practice is turning toxic include:

  • management and/or employees gossip and/or form cliques
  • there is aggressive bullying behavior by either management or employees
  • there is poor communication with unclear expectations
  • there are dictatorial management styles that are unwelcoming to employee feedback
  • there is excessive absenteeism, illness or fatigue from employees or managers
  • an environment of favoritism exists
  • employees feel pressured to be workaholics while sacrificing a healthy life/work balance
  • unrealistic workloads or deadlines are placed upon employees
  • there is strained communication between employees and management

Hopefully, you will not find any of these in your practice, and you may even uncover problems not listed above. For whatever problems you do identify, be sure to take swift corrective action.

2) Evaluate underlying support network

Thankfully, toxicity in the workplace cannot take root without a fertile environment. It cannot survive without a supportive infrastructure.

Now that you have already done some digging, it is time to dig even deeper. You must identify the shared values and actions that are helping to support those negative behaviors.

You must examine your practice and the company’s leadership, as well as their values. You can then begin to work your way down the ladder from the top to identify issues such as:

  • discriminatory beliefs
  • management treating employees as assets rather than people
  • information guarding that includes poor communication and unclear expectations
  • aggressive and/or hostile management styles
  • the belief that employees are lazy, dumb and/or expendable
  • resentment of authority
  • contrariness
  • lack of accountability from management
  • lack of appreciation for good work

Each of the issues highlighted above is problematic and lay the foundation for a negative practice culture.

3) Repair strategy planning

Now that you have a clear understanding of the illness plaguing your practice, you are now in the position to strategize your treatment plan.

Now is a good time to remind you that change is difficult for most and it is oftentimes a time-consuming task. Do not expect to repair your culture overnight.

By tackling the bigger issues first, you may find that the smaller ones begin to resolve themselves. Following is some strategic antidotes to many of the most common workplace issues: 

  • Encourage and accept feedback. You should listen to your employee’s grievances, validate their experiences and institute the change necessary to address their concerns. You can have one-on-one meetings with employees, host a meeting, or send out blind surveys by email. After you listen to and validate your employees, you should work with them to find solutions.
  • Delegate realistic workloads and deadlines. While it would be great if everything could be done yesterday, you must take the time to learn what it is exactly that your employees do. You should know what they are responsible for and how long tasks should take.
  • Communicate transparently. Employees have to understand the context in order to do their jobs well. By arming them with the necessary information, you help to reduce confusion and frustration. This, in turn, makes employees happier and more efficient.
  • Praise in public and correct in private. Employees like to be recognized for their contributions. You should praise your employees in public when warranted and if necessary, correct them in private. You can quickly build a positive and supportive environment by sharing employee successes and making positive encouragement a group activity.
  • Play by one rulebook. If you or management play favorites, it will quickly breed resentment among other employees. Review your company’s policies to ensure they do not unfairly benefit one group over another. Solicit feedback in this area as employees are likely more attuned than you to such favoritism. Level the playing field and ensure everyone is playing from one rulebook.
  • Foster emotional intelligence. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that strong relationships between colleagues and superiors are among the top five elements leading to job satisfaction. You must banish bullying, disrespect and dismissive behaviors. Prioritize emotional intelligence by providing the necessary resources to help employees expand theirs. Improving emotional intelligence in your practice will also cure a lot of ills.

4) Plan implementation

Leaders are the catalysts for workplace change. As the person in charge, you have a powerful platform for executing change. You must, however, abide by the changes you enact if you expect others to follow suit and take them seriously.

One easy way to normalize the behaviors you desire is the ask the social influencers in your practice or company to promote those behaviors to others in their sphere of influence.

It will be easier for your employees to implement positive changes if you remove all barriers to success. This is another opportunity to turn to your employees to learn what exactly those barriers are. They will likely be more than keen to tell you.

It is important to help your employees to see how the changes you are proposing will reward them with a more positive workplace.

5) Reflect and adapt

As change will not happen overnight, you must provide adequate time for your new policies and practices to take root. After a few months, step back, make an assessment and take note of what has changed and what hasn’t.

Meet one-on-one and in a group setting with those influencers that you enlisted the help of to solicit feedback on how things have progressed. Obtaining these different perspectives will provide you with valuable insight.

Every couple of months reassess your progress and make adaptations wherever necessary. Always be sure to keep the lines of communication open.

Cultural change is no easy feat, however, it is well worth the effort. Staying the course will lead you to success.

Elicia Gibson is the Practice Success Editor of DSO News. She is also the Founder and Senior Managing Partner of Dental Allies, Inc. Dental Allies helps practices and dental businesses scale. They accomplish this by focusing their clients on culture, growth, automation and operational improvement. They are partnered with the processing affiliate of a bank to provide the lowest payment processing rates in dental. They’ll introduce you. They are big on making meaningful introductions. Dental Allies delivers results that are real, impactful and meaningful. Elicia began her dental career as a Dental Assistant, holding multiple positions, including office manager, before being promoted to a transition manager and finally a district manager responsible for 17 offices. She was the first business development person at DDS Lab and spent close to a decade in lab sales to national accounts.