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Building a Practice With Zero-Tolerance Culture: The Solution

By Dr. Emily Watson

Second 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.

If not handled in a timely manner, these problems will persist and lead to a toxic work culture, causing the best employees to flee in search of a better situation.

The good news is there are solutions that can be put into play that will help improve the work culture, which at times will mean parting ways with those who can’t accept that you have zero tolerance for those behaviors.

Being Clear is Kind

At Warsaw Orthodontics, we have our own book club and one of our recent books was Dare to Lead by Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown says something that is relevant to this conversation––that being clear is kind, and that being unclear is unkind.

What does she mean by this? Sometimes we need to have difficult conversations with each other to get past problems that could end up lingering if we don’t. If I am your co-worker and I tell you that all is well between us and I have no problem with something you have said or done, but then I gossip about you behind your back, I am not being kind.

As Brene Brown points out, sometimes we are hesitant to have those difficult conversations because we worry about hurting someone’s feelings, or we don’t like the fact that the conversation will make us uncomfortable.

So we aren’t clear with the other person and a problem that needs to be resolved continues to be a problem––and likely grows bigger and bigger.

This is where one of the solutions comes in: Have that conversation and find a way to resolve whatever the problem might be between the two of you. In many cases it turns out that the other person doesn’t even know you had an issue with them. We often play out a worst-case scenario in our minds, but when you let them know how they made you feel, they are likely to say, “I’m sorry. I had no idea you felt that way.”  With any luck, what you thought was going to be a huge confrontation can be over with quickly and you can move on.

Of course, not everything is resolved so easily. A consultant I use says that sometimes level 2 coaching is needed, which means that the two individuals can’t resolve their disagreement on their own, so a mediator is required.

At Warsaw Orthodontics, that mediator may be me or it may be our consultants who are trained in knowing and understanding the Gallup Strengths. I must admit it’s not a position I’m always comfortable with. We do these strength assessments for everyone on our team, and one of my top strengths is harmony, which sounds wonderful and it is. But people with harmony as a strength often prefer to avoid conflict, which is tough to do when you are being a mediator.

Fortunately, another trait of people with the strength of harmony is that they like to find consensus. In many cases, when there is conflict, I am able to say to the two people involved, “Can we agree that …?”, and then I fill in the blank with something I believe we can have a meeting of the minds on. 

4 More Tips for Achieving the Goal

As you can see, creating a culture where gossip, drama, and negativity are not tolerated won’t happen without effort on your part––and effort on your team’s part as well. To achieve it, here are a few other things that can be done: 

  • Explain your culture in the job interview. You don’t need to wait until someone is hired and already creating a problem on the job before you bring up this issue. I am upfront in job interviews that we don’t tolerate gossip, drama, and negativity. If that’s an issue for them, then we aren’t the right place for them and they should look elsewhere. The goal here is to bring in people who are likely to fit in well with the culture right away, rather than to spend so much of your time and energy later trying to acclimate them to a culture that’s a poor fit for them.
  • Take immediate action. Minor disagreements can grow into long-simmering feuds if bitter feelings between co-workers aren’t addressed. As mentioned before, this could require mediation on your part and an effort to find consensus so that all parties involved can feel good as they move past their disagreement. But this isn’t just about you acting quickly and intervening on behalf of one of your employees. Encourage your team to work on their own to quickly fix any problems they have with one of their co-workers. Often, they will find the other person hadn’t even realized they had said or done something that was offensive. Just by talking it out they can quickly resolve an issue that would have festered. They might have held ill feelings for a long time––and without good reason.
  • Don’t fear failure. That hesitance to be open with each other and have a difficult conversation is sometimes based on this concern: What if, even with our best efforts, we fail? Of course, you might not fail, but still, I tell my team that it is okay to fail. Maybe the problem won’t be handled to everyone’s satisfaction on the first try. In that case, you might need to regroup, think things over some more, then try again. 
  • Realize that some people are just unhappy. It’s unfortunate, but there are people you will never win over to your way of thinking. Some people are simply unhappy––perhaps because of external factors unrelated to the workplace––and they bring their unhappiness to work with them. Everyone has problems, but you have to check them at the door when you are in a professional setting. Certainly, we want to empathize with anyone going through a tough time, but here I’m talking about situations where unhappiness seems to be part of the personality. Almost certainly, that will lead to issues on the job. You may begin to suspect you have such a person on your team when everyone seems to have run-ins with them, even employees who otherwise rarely complain and seem to get along well with everyone. 

Much of this comes down to two important factors that need to be emphasized––communication with each other and respect for each other.

In the third part of this three-part series, I will discuss the results of introducing a zero-tolerance culture, and how doing so ultimately led to a better team.