Are you a 'why-er' or a 'comply-er'?

2013 05 29 10 37 53 47 Knowles Lisa 200 20130529173836

I find there are two ends of the dentist spectrum when it comes to problem-solving. One end represents the "comply-er" dentist -- the person who tends to not make waves, is easygoing on the outside, and goes along to get along. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum: the incessant question-asking "why-er" dentist -- verging on obnoxious with his or her nonstop questioning about every move or decision made within the office.

The comply-er is accused of being too laid back and not being able to make a decision, and is sometimes called spineless. The why-er is accused of being too skeptical and nontrusting, and is often called a micromanager.

So, is it better to be one way than another? Dentists need to ride somewhere in the middle on this one. Too often, I see chaos within a practice because a dentist is afraid to make a decision and offend someone. That dentist is too soft -- and often holds no one accountable for his or her actions. No one really is running the practice; it is somehow running itself, but typically not very efficiently nor with a lot of team continuity.

Lisa Knowles, DDS.Lisa Knowles, DDS.
Lisa Knowles, DDS.

Conversely, I see chaos when a dentist trusts no one and has to have his or her hands on every decision being made. There are constant interruptions on patient care, and patients wonder how anything gets done, particularly when the dentist seems so distracted by minute decision-making responsibilities.

Both types of dentists arise from a person's past experiences. It's really not anyone's fault. It's a matter of understanding why we are the way we are. This is, quite frankly, the problem: Dentists do not realize how they are acting, and often when someone points out how they are acting, they deny their behavior and can't see it.

It's a total blind spot, because we dentists think we got to where we are because of the very characteristics that helped us accomplish so much -- and we fear changing any of that mojo. I mean, who else would have been able to make it through dental school without being as nontrusting and competitive as us (thinks the why-er)?

Who else would have been able to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of board exams without bending and being flexible to accommodate others (thinks the comply-er)? We have thousands of excuses as to why we should not change.

I do not think this is particularly unique to dentists. We ALL do this, no matter what profession or position we hold. We dentists, however, feel compelled to stand our ground because of the title we hold and the leadership positions we are trying to establish or maintain, and because some of us have overinflated egos. We think too highly of ourselves to possibly think we could be wrong. Again, not particularly unique to the profession of dentistry; we all have ego issues. After being selected into our prestigious schools over thousands of others, and being groomed to be doctors in the world, we tend to get the feeling that we are better than others -- smarter, more educated, entitled to be right. Yes? And, therein lies the problem.

It's only with much mentoring and a true willingness to lead better that I was able to escape my own ego and take feedback from others. I am a why-er at heart. I want to know who made the decisions and why; I want to understand the process, and I definitely want to be able to question the process and make it better if possible. Done too much, my "why-ing" makes others think I do not trust their judgment. Done too little, I give others the impression that I have no idea what is going on in my business.

“It's a blend of asking good questions and knowing when to acquiesce that helps level out a practice.”

It's a blend of asking good questions and knowing when to acquiesce that helps level out a practice. With a blend, the team knows there is room for asking questions -- and they become the why-ers at times. Yet they also know they will be trusted to do their jobs and not have someone questioning their every move.

As why-er dentists, we must remember that we do not have to do it all. As comply-er dentists, we must remember that we have to do some of it. Striking a balance is the challenge of being the leader -- and it's often not easy to figure out when we reach the equilibrium point. No color indicator or heat exchange is obvious like in chemistry class. Rather, it's an awareness of the reactions of the people around us that serve as our indicators. If we don't notice these reactions or ever take the time to ask about these reactions, we may never gain the perspective we desire.

If you are a dentist and do not trust your team, or your team has lost their trust in you, it may be time to check your blind spots. Ask for feedback from your team members. Give them a survey. Prepare for the worst, and I bet you will be surprised at what you get back. Most teams want a leader -- someone with a good blend of skills when it comes to decision-making. I think most dentists want to be balanced, too. They are simply unfamiliar with knowing how to get there or where to start.

Here are several tips for asking for leadership feedback:

  1. Ask for the team's feedback with a survey. It's a start in the right direction.
  2. Let go of your ego a bit, and get ready for a humbling process.
  3. Make your team feel safe to give you their feedback. If they don't feel safe (i.e., they feel like there will be retribution or defensiveness for their honesty), they will only tell you what you want to hear.
  4. Make your survey anonymous.
  5. Be ready to change some things that get pointed out to you. Lack of action on your part will cause others to ridicule the process, and future surveys will not be taken seriously.
  6. Get the accurate feedback you desire to become a better leader. One-time zinger feedback statements may be inaccurate. Consistent, repetitive points made my several team members typically hold some truths.
  7. Do not dwell on negative feedback; be grateful you received an opportunity to improve.
  8. Sincerely thank your team for filling out their surveys and helping you to become a better leader.

Being the team leader is a tiring job on top of already being an underliked healthcare professional working throughout the day to lead patients. It seems overwhelming, at times, to manage all of this leading.

In small bites, we can learn to lead our teams as well as our patients. It took us four years to learn the basics -- truly only the basics of dentistry -- so we can expect it to take just as long, if not longer, to learn how to be good leaders. Our patients and our teams are counting on us. Let's learn. Let's lead.

Lisa Knowles, DDS, currently practices in Charlotte, MI. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, and offers private lesson consulting. For more information or to contact Dr. Knowles, email her at [email protected] or view her website at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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