Work Better as a Team When You “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”

In a dental office, who is the most important person on the team?

Some might argue it is the dentist. Others might say the hygienist or the dental assistant. The front office team would definitely say the office couldn’t possibly run well without them.

I’m going to tell you who I think is the most important person on the team. But first, keep reading and let’s talk for a minute about how the day often runs in the dental office.

The front office team doesn’t understand why the team in the back is always so stressed. The hygienists are stressed waiting for the dentist because the assistants aren’t working fast enough to get the dentist free for an exam. The dentist is stressed because the schedule fell apart again and the team up front can’t fill the schedule. The dental assistants are stressed every time they see the dentist squeezing in one more procedure in an already full day.

Here’s the clamor of voices: “What a day! What about me? No one understands my job or cares about how this affects me! When will I get some help around here? Why do they always do that? Me, Me, I, I …”

This repeats on a loop all day until suddenly it’s the end of the day, everyone is leaving stressed, and nothing got resolved… And then you get up tomorrow and start again. Sound familiar?

I am here to tell you something you already know: there is no “I” in “TEAM.” As a dental office, if we are only focused on “I” or our department, then we can’t focus on the most important person in the practice.

Now, I’m going to tell you who I believe is the most important person on the dental team, but first, let me tell you who it’s not.

The most important person on your team isn’t the dentist. It isn’t the dental assistant. It isn’t the hygienist. It isn’t the people in the front office. It isn’t the office manager.

Why? Because the most important person in the dental office is the patient.

Your patients flow through every department in the office, and they can feel when the team is not one unified group. Without patients, you wouldn’t have a practice, and no one on the team would be necessary at all.

Patients need every person on the team to understand that every team member is vital to the mission of the dental office, which is serving the patient. If your office runs with a lot of “I” and not a lot of “we,” it’s imperative that you take time to get together and figure out how to work better as a team.

Start with defining what a team is:


Patients don’t know whether you are the best dentist in town or the best assistant, hygienist, or office manager. Patients don’t judge us as individual dental professionals—they judge the entire experience of being in the office. It takes everyone on the team to give the patient that amazing experience and make it feel seamless.

The issue is that we get into our area, role, or job duties each day and we get focused on just that.

We are each aware that we play a huge part in the overall experience as well as hyperfocused on our own frustrations about how things are going from day to day, but we tend to forget about what others deal with in their areas.

Let’s face it, working in a dental office can be quite stressful at times.

I suggest you find ways to do what they call “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Set up time on a regular basis (weekly or monthly) to have each employee from the team spend an hour shadowing someone from another department. Have the hygienist spend an hour with an assistant to see how much they do each day. The assistant can spend time up front to see how crazy it can get at the front desk. The dentist should spend an hour with the assistants to see what it is like to turn over a room, sterilize, etc.

Some offices spend time cross training, which is close but not the same. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” isn’t about teaching team members to cover for each other as needed—it is literally just taking an hour to have one team member sit with someone else on the team and appreciate what they deal with daily. This will allow the person observing to see what happens before or after the patient is in their own area, to experience what the patient experiences, and to see how hard the other person’s job can be.

This firsthand insight gives each person on the team a new appreciation and empathy for others in the office in different roles. Beyond this, it may also help the team work as a unit each day as team members begin to understand what others are dealing with.

You can encourage the team member who is observing to reflect on what they observed about the challenges of that role in the office, as well as the strengths they saw in their colleague and personal qualities that aid them in doing their job well.

You may find that because of “walking in someone else’s shoes” for an hour now and then, team members will eventually begin to work in a proactive way to assist others in different areas, so things can run more effectively overall.

Teach your team to focus on “we” instead of “I.” We all wake up in the morning as individuals, and we leave the office to go home at the end of the day as individuals, but during the time in the office, we’re a team coming together to focus on the one person who is the reason for what we do: the patient.

Related Dental Training Resources:

Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM is the founder and driving force behind Front Office Rocks, and the leading provider of on-demand virtual training and resources for dental practices.