Building a Practice With Zero-Tolerance Culture: The Aftermath | Dr. Emily Watson

Building a Practice With Zero-Tolerance Culture: The Aftermath

By Dr. Emily Watson

Third of three parts

In Part 1 of this series I discussed the type of problems that emerge in a workplace where gossip, drama, and negativity get out of hand, making life more difficult for everyone.

In Part 2, I offered solutions, such as having those difficult conversations to get past problems and explaining the culture during job interviews so new hires understand what’s expected.

Of course, even when you introduce a zero-tolerance culture, you have no guarantees that every day will be pleasant or that every interaction among employees will be perfect. But I can attest to the fact that for my office, the culture change ultimately led to a better team.

But it wasn’t easy getting there.

Superstar vs. Toxic Employee

Let’s say you want to introduce such a culture at your organization and you move forward with implementing it. What you may find is that even some employees who are otherwise stellar performers simply don’t fit into this new culture. They may be excellent at what they do, but they simply don’t get along with their co-workers — and may even cause constant friction with those co-workers.

Harvard research study a few years back showed that, surprisingly, bringing in a superstar employee isn’t as beneficial to the business as getting rid of a toxic one. So it’s likely that if you have a superstar who is also toxic, they aren’t as helpful to your organization as you might think.

And if you are wondering what are the odds that a toxic employee could also be a top performer, the chances might be greater than you would imagine. The Harvard study revealed that “toxic workers are more productive, at least in terms of the quantity of output.”

“This could explain why toxic workers are selected [to be hired] and are able to remain in an organization for as long as they do,” the researchers concluded.

Certainly, it’s easy to see how that could play out — at least until the atmosphere in the organization becomes so difficult for everyone else that a manager is forced to take action. Perhaps if you are a manager, you can recall instances where you reached that moment and reluctantly parted ways with a top salesperson or another exemplary worker. If you are an employee who had to deal with a toxic co-worker, you may see it from the other perspective: You wondered why your company continued to tolerate this person — and forced you to tolerate them as well.

Yes, sometimes people have to be told, “We’re not a good fit for you.”

That can make for an uncomfortable moment, but putting it off results in many uncomfortable moments for your entire team.

The good news is that once you establish your zero-tolerance culture — and you make it clear that this is the way you plan to operate from here on out — it does get better.

Much better.

Halting the Spread of Toxicity

For one thing, you head off a lot of future problems, including the possibility that the toxicity will become contagious. Those Harvard researchers found that this is actually a possibility. They documented that “exposure to other toxic workers, negatively influenced the likelihood of one becoming toxic.” The idea of toxicity spreading through the organization like a virus is unsettling, to say the least, and one more reason to deal with the situation as quickly and as forcefully as you can.

And once you deal with the toxic influence, I imagine there will be one massive sigh of relief from the rest of your team, who will no longer dread the work day and the interactions they were being forced to have with that person.

We once had such scenarios play out at Warsaw Orthodontics and had to either make the difficult decision to let a toxic employee go or they left on their own.

The results in the workplace were striking. Once that person was gone, the rest of the team clearly was relieved, no longer feeling distressed or anxious about the situation, and reassured that they wouldn’t have to worry each day about having to deal with the unpleasantness in the workplace they had been enduring. Those pent-up emotions finally had found a safety valve.

Of course, part of the fallout also could be that, once you’ve rid the workplace of the toxic ringleader, other people who had gravitated to that person and joined in the gossip may leave as well. They may decide that this new zero-tolerance culture that is taking hold in their workplace is not for them. You have to be prepared for that, and at the moment it is happening it might be hard to see the benefits.

But I can attest that the benefits are there. Right now, I have an extraordinary group of people working for me who would not have tolerated that level of negativity, drama, and gossip, and our workplace is all the better for it. I also have had the privilege of working with my consultant Vicki Newell and her team at Engaged Practice Growth Specialists, who have provided me with wonderful guidance and assistance in improving my practice and communication over the last eight years.

Here’s one final thing worth noting: If you are a leader who introduces a zero-tolerance culture that aims to stamp out gossip, drama, and negativity in your workplace, the policy isn’t just something for everyone else. You can’t expect members of your team to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.

I consider it my responsibility to lead the charge and be a role model for the attitudes and actions that I expect from others. I can’t show up at our morning huddle in a bad mood, complaining about everything that is going wrong, and expect those around me to remain upbeat and positive.

As the leader, you need to be consistent on how you show up for the team.

One of the things a faculty member told me in residency is, “Orthodontics will be the easy part of owning a practice, running the business/dealing with people will be the hard part.” At the time, learning all of the information about orthodontics seemed hard, but I clearly understand what my professor was saying now. Unfortunately, when you’re the leader, if problems arise, it ultimately falls on you to make the tough decisions.

As my father always says, if it was easy to be the boss, everyone would do it.