Creating culture: safety, vulnerability, purpose

Mark Topley explains how to create a positive office culture

A positive culture is fundamental to your practice, says Mark Topley, and it’s completely within your power to create one.

The late, great Peter Drucker was right: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

No matter how gifted you are clinically, commercially or strategically, your practice simply will not succeed if your culture is toxic.

Culture is the only sustainable aspect of your business over which you have full control.

I frequently work with owners and managers who are struggling with negative people and a negative culture. The first thing we have to agree on is this – either the leader sets the culture, or your most negative people will do it for you.

A positive work culture will be a key determinant of your success. As a dental professional, you are responsible for not only providing high-quality patient care, but also fostering a workplace environment that is conducive to productivity, collaboration and employee wellbeing.

A strong work culture can significantly impact your practice’s performance and the satisfaction of your team. A positive culture can lead to increased employee engagement, improved communication, reduced turnover and enhanced teamwork.

By creating an environment where employees feel valued, respected and motivated, you can eliminate behaviours that pull everyone down. This will maximise productivity and ensure that your practice is well-positioned to thrive.

Keys to creating a positive culture

There are three fundamental aspects to creating a positive culture: creating safety, embracing vulnerability, and fostering a sense of purpose.

Safety and belonging

Contrary to popular belief, highly successful cultures are not necessarily characterised by constant happiness or light-heartedness. Instead, they are energised and engaged, focusing on collaboratively solving difficult problems.

This process often requires candid feedback and uncomfortable truth-telling to bridge the gap between the group’s current state and where it should be.

This means that rather than avoiding confrontation and feedback, we should embrace it. But the way feedback is delivered is crucial.

In his book The Culture Code, Dan Coyle describes a study by researchers at Stanford, which identified the concept of ‘magic feedback’. This is by far the most successful way to share feedback with a team member.

When providing feedback on underperformance, a mistake or a misstep, magic feedback bookends the discussion with this: ‘I’m giving you this feedback because we have high standards here, and I believe you can achieve them.’

Notice that the feedback contains three essential elements:

1. It communicates that the recipient is part of the group

2. It emphasises the group’s special nature and high standards

3. It expresses belief in the recipient’s ability to meet those standards.

To foster belonging, over-communicate active listening, spotlight fallibility, embrace messengers, and genuinely thank team members to reinforce their sense of belonging.

Vulnerability: embracing weakness

Vulnerability plays a critical role in building a great culture. By acknowledging weaknesses and asking for help, leaders model behaviour that encourages trust and collaboration.

When team members respond with vulnerability, it leads to a more supportive environment where insecurities are set aside, and the focus is on collective progress.

The key to fostering vulnerability is the second person’s response: do they reveal their weaknesses or pretend they don’t have any? This reaction significantly impacts the group’s dynamic. Leaders should set the tone by going first, delivering negative feedback in person, and initiating vulnerability and open disagreements.

Purpose and shared goals

A strong sense of purpose unifies organisations with great cultures. These groups utilise simple, powerful beacons that concentrate attention and engagement on shared goals. They employ various tactics to reinforce this purpose:

1. Tell stories – use narratives that highlight the organisation’s values, mission, and vision.

Why did you buy/start your practice? What was important in the way you wanted to deliver dentistry? What’s the story that got you into your profession?

2. Use catchphrases – create memorable slogans that encapsulate the group’s core values. My favourite is: ‘We’re after excellence, not perfection.’

3. Leverage artefacts – utilise symbols, logos or objects that represent the organisation’s purpose and culture.

In conclusion, building a great culture requires fostering a sense of belonging, embracing vulnerability, and maintaining a clear, shared purpose.

By focusing on these pillars, organisations can create a strong, supportive environment that enables teams to solve problems together and achieve long-term success.

Establishing a positive culture

1. Define your expectations

The first step in establishing a positive culture is to clearly define your expectations. This involves identifying the core values and behaviours that you want to see exemplified in your workplace.

Consider what is most important to you and your practice, such as integrity, professionalism, teamwork, or patient-centred care. Once you have defined your expectations, it is crucial to communicate them effectively to your team members.

2. Communicate clearly and consistently

Effective communication is key to building a strong work culture. Make sure that your team members are aware of your expectations and understand their roles and responsibilities.

Regular team meetings, one-on-one checkins, and open-door policies can all facilitate open lines of communication within your dental practice.

Make sure you are weaving in the messages that clearly and succinctly communicate your cultural expectations and boundaries in your regular meetings.

3. Reward and hold to account

To create a culture that is both positive and sustainable, it is important to reward employees who demonstrate the values and behaviours that you wish to see. This may involve providing recognition or incentives for exceptional performance or contributions to the team.

Conversely, it is also important to hold employees accountable when they do not meet expectations. This might involve offering constructive feedback, providing additional support or training, or, in extreme cases, taking disciplinary action.

4. Model culture

As the leader, your behaviour and actions play a crucial role in shaping the culture of your workplace. By modelling the values and behaviours that you wish to see in your team members, you can set a positive example and create a strong foundation for your desired culture. This might involve demonstrating empathy, offering support and guidance or exhibiting a strong work ethic.

Empowering your team

In conclusion, building a thriving culture within your dental practice is achievable and well worth the effort. By focusing on fostering belonging, embracing vulnerability, and maintaining a shared purpose, you can create a strong and supportive environment that empowers your team to excel.

By defining your expectations, communicating them clearly and consistently, rewarding and holding employees accountable, and modelling the desired culture, you can establish a positive work environment that not only drives long-term success but also leaves a lasting impact on your employees and patients alike.

Remember, the culture of your practice is the one sustainable aspect that is entirely within your control, so invest in it to ensure the prosperity of your business.

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