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

Building a Practice With Zero-Tolerance Culture: The Problem

By Dr. Emily Watson

First of three parts

Human beings, sadly, find it much easier to be negative than to be positive.

That isn’t just hyperbole, or my opinion. Researchers who have looked into this particular quirk of the human race have even come up with a name for this phenomenon – negativity bias. What those researchers have found is that people are hardwired to pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones. We learn more from negative experiences, and we make decisions by giving more weight to negative information than to positive information.

Negativity bias plays out in our interactions in any number of ways, but one good example is that if a product or service doesn’t meet our expectations, we complain to the business. But if all goes well with the product or service, we aren’t as quick to call and express our appreciation. 

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that this bias also shows up in the workplace, where stress mounts, personalities collide, and soon gossip, drama, and negativity threaten to turn the environment toxic.

Not exactly the place you look forward to going to each morning, no matter how good the pay.

This is why at my practice I strive to create a zero-tolerance culture, where the goal is to eliminate gossip, drama, and negativity by addressing it early, correcting behavior when necessary, and ultimately letting someone go if over time they prove they just aren’t the right fit for our culture.

I think it’s important for any leader to set guidelines for what they expect in workplace behavior. If we aren’t careful and we allow negativity to dominate employee interactions and moods, soon it will be difficult to attract and keep the best employees. Our best performers, who likely will have other options, will go elsewhere to find a more positive environment where they can thrive. 

So, we leaders must set the tone, practice the traits we expect from others, and make sure that everyone is aware of and understands those expectations. 

But more than leadership needs to be involved. It’s also important for each member of the team to realize how they can contribute to the positive culture as individuals, communicating rather than stewing when they encounter friction with a co-worker.

Of course, while replacing a negative work environment with a positive one is a wonderful goal, it’s not always easy to accomplish, possibly because you are trying to overcome what are natural tendencies for so many of us.

 But it’s definitely possible and worth the effort. When I first took over my practice, I realized early on that gossip, drama, and negativity were rampant. Slowly, we began to change that, though admittedly, there have been times when the negativity reared its head again. 


Backstage, Onstage

In any medical or dental office, if you aren’t careful, employees aren’t the only ones made uncomfortable if there are negative vibes floating around. Patients pick up on it, too.

Fortunately, I feel that our staff does a good job of staying positive in front of the patients. But to stay on our toes, we are always learning as well. Our office has a book club, and one of the books we read was Lessons from the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World’s Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life by Dennis Snow. 

Because of that book, I talk a lot about “backstage” and “onstage” in the workplace. When we are in front of patients, we are onstage. Just like Disney World entertainers, who can’t let the public see them doing anything out of character that will spoil the magic behind the Magic Kingdom, we want to make a visit to our office a positive experience for our patients. 

As Snow writes, the backstage/onstage concept isn’t just a physical place; it’s an attitude.

Certain conversations simply shouldn’t happen in front of patients (or in the case of other businesses, customers, or clients.) You might not even have to say anything to clue in a patient that something is amiss. If there are awkward silent moments, patients can tell you are having a bad day. If you aren’t smiling when you greet them, they may get an inkling that things are not quite right. And they almost certainly will notice, and become uncomfortable, if one employee speaks rudely to another. 

Let’s face it. Energy is palpable, and if you are giving off bad energy, people are going to pick up on it. 

The good news, though, is that members of the team can all work together on solutions that will make the workplace a positive, inviting setting for everyone.

In the second part of this three-part series, I will explore some of those solutions.