Covid-19 presents the dental industry and specifically dental practices with tragic circumstances, circumstances which dental practices are simply not prepared to handle. Events such as Covid-19 cause unspeakable pain and grief not only for the people directly involved but also for those who see misfortune befall colleagues, friends, or even total strangers. This pain and grief spills directly into the dental practice.
The dental practice leadership and managerial rule books fail dentists at times like these, when people are searching for meaning and a reason to hope for the future. There is, however, something leaders can do in times of collective pain, grief, and confusion. By the very nature of their position, they can help their clinical and executive staff, as well as the practice begin to heal by taking actions that demonstrate their own compassion, unleashing a compassionate response throughout the whole practice.
The research at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia’s CompassionLab has demonstrated that although the human capacity to show compassion is universal, some organizations suppress it, while others create an environment in which compassion is not only expressed but spreads.
For dentists, and the senior executives of the DSOs, with their overriding focus on compliance, operations, revenue generation, safety, reluctant patients, exceedingly cautious hygienists, expressing authentic compassion is simply absent.
According to the studies done by the CompassionLab, organizational compassion is enormously important. Unleashing compassion in the practice not only lessens the immediate suffering of those directly affected by trauma, it enables them to recover from future setbacks more quickly and effectively. Furthermore, it increases their attachment to their colleagues and hence to the practice itself.
For those who witness or participate in acts of compassion, the effect is just as great; people’s caring gestures contribute to their own resilience and attachment to the practice. Indeed, we’ve found that a leader’s ability to enable a compassionate response throughout a practice directly affects the practice’s ability to maintain high performance in difficult times. It fosters a practice’s capacity to heal, to learn, to adapt, and to even excel.
When people think of compassion, the first thing that comes to mind for many is empathy. Although empathy can be comforting, it does not engender a broader response and therefore has limited capacity for practice healing. Instead, what I am observe clearly demonstrates that compassionate leadership involves taking some form of public action, however small, that is intended to ease people’s pain—and that inspires others to act as well.
What many dentists and senior executives are failing to do is facilitate a compassionate practice response on two levels. The first level our company calls a context for meaning—the leader creates an environment in which people can freely express and discuss the way they feel, which in turn helps them to make sense of their pain, seek or provide comfort, and imagine a more hopeful future.
The second level we term a context for action—the leader creates an environment in which those who experience, or witness pain can find ways to alleviate their own and others’ suffering. My client experience over the last few months demonstrates leaders of practices facing the current crisis, those who excel at bringing authentic compassion help their staff and themselves make sense of terrible events and allow everyone to move on.
Meaning amid Chaos
Acute trauma, tragedy, or distress causes people to engage in intense soul-searching. We aren’t referring to the restlessness and stock-taking that are a natural and ongoing process as people mature and grow in their careers; we’re talking about the persistent and vexing questions that affect how people live their lives: Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? How will we cope? Why me? And even, for employees who witness a tragic event but are not directly affected, why not me?
It isn’t the job of a leader to answer these questions. But at the same time, it’s not realistic or reasonable to ask people to ponder these questions only on their own time, outside the office. Instead, we are asking our clients to cultivate an environment that allows people to work through these questions in their own way so they can eventually start assigning meaning to events and be healthier in these times.
As a leader, you can start by setting an example for others by openly revealing your own humanity. You may well experience the same emotions affecting your employees—from deep sorrow to anxiousness to uncertainty to anger to steely resolve. Openly expressing these feelings can be immensely powerful for those who witness it, especially during times of extreme pain. But that would mean as a leader, you’d would need to be fully self-expressed vulnerable, a most difficult leadership challenge.
When people know they can bring their pain to the office, they no longer expend energy trying to ignore or suppress it, and they can more easily and effectively get back to work. This may be a mutually reinforcing cycle, since getting back to a routine can be healing.
The definition of compassion is a sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. The key word being consciousness, which would mean dentists and their staff would need to become self-aware through self-examination their responses to the coronavirus and how it is affecting them, and then talking about it. But how many dental offices do you know that would spend dedicated time talking about their psychological and emotional reactions to the pandemic?
Limited offer to limited times in September and October. I am offering a no cost one-hour Zoom interaction with the entire staff, or senior staff if numbers are too large, to facilitate their responses to the coronavirus and how it is affecting them and the practice. If interested, firstname.lastname@example.org One set-up, twenty minute call with the leader is needed in before the Zoom call.