Truly happy employees

Editor's note: The Coaches Corner column appears regularly on the advice and opinion page, Second Opinion.

I recently had a discussion with some dentist friends about how to create happy employees. The conversation could just as easily have taken place with anyone who owns or manages a business. Everyone has ideas about this topic: Have pizza parties; give out gift cards to Target, Costco, or Walmart; schedule a music night; start on office band; have a poetry reading. ...

Some of these are good ideas -- well, maybe not poetry night (please don't invite me!) -- but I believe they all miss an essential point.

This kind of striving to create happy employees is both superficial and impossible. It reminds me of the advertisements that say "satisfaction guaranteed." Satisfaction and happiness are subjective. They are very personal matters between the product or service and the user. Happiness is way too intimate a feeling to be manufactured.

Your employees work for you and your company -- and stay loyal -- for a particular reason, and it's not related to pepperoni pizza or gift cards. It's because their work and your leadership satisfy them. So when you think about creating satisfied employees, it's best to ask the following fundamental questions. Under each I have provided my own personal answers:

Why am I in business, and who exactly are my customers?
At my core I am a healer, and I am in business to be able to lessen the suffering of my patients. This may be a bit too Eastern for many, but I believe that at some level we have all chosen the profession of dentistry as a healing art. Sure, a comfortable material reward was also part of the deal, but high financial rewards are possible in many other jobs and we chose this one. My customers are my patients and they appreciate both the skill and, perhaps more important, the humanity of my offering.

What is it that I promise and to whom do I make this promise?
I promise to work with my patients to provide them with a healthy oral environment. I deliver my dentistry in a compassionate manner. My staff sees and supports that effort.

Who am I, really, in the eyes of my employees?
My employees, most of whom have been with me for a decade and longer, see me as someone who is constantly learning new techniques and exposing myself to new technology, and who is, above all, a human being struggling with my imperfections.

When I look in my mirror, here is what I see: I see a boss who strives to be fair and generous but who demands competence, discipline, and constant learning from my staff in turn. I am not an easy boss. I demand these things from myself as well. I praise and I criticize, and I expect these very same things from my staff. We have a vehicle for this kind of exchange. Our regular staff meetings are designed to promote openness, and they result in personal growth and enhanced self-esteem. Commitment, not compliance, is what I strive to achieve.

Are my employees happy? I think so. Would they prefer a gift certificate to Costco? Well, Cartier, maybe ... but the proof is in practice growth and employee retention, and on average my employees stay with me for more than 10 years. My office manager recently moved to another state after having worked for me for 19 years. Years ago I hired a hygienist who (I later found out) had been given advice by an instructor who had occasionally temped in my office: "If you ever get a chance to work in Dr. Goldstein's office, jump on it!" Recommendations (and ego boosts) don't get better than that!

I think it's best to see ourselves as gardeners. We water the plants and flowers, we change the plant food from time to time, sometimes we need to repot and weed, but with proper care, the garden thrives.

Alan Goldstein, D.M.D., F A.C.D., is a member of the Dental Coaches Association, an organization of dentists and professional coaches who are committed to bringing professional coaching to the dental profession. Learn more by visiting

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.

Copyright © 2010

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