Coaching Joy at Work

 As I fly around the United States and Europe consulting with orthodontists who desire to create the very best practices, I often discover that most workplaces lack a sense of joy, fulfillment and peace.  It might be one thing to discover this predicament in smaller struggling practices, but often, the larger the practice, the more the turmoil seems to exist.  The larger the group, the more misunderstanding and confusion, especially if the practice is not focused on creating an environment and systems conducive to achieving joy at work.  The old adage, “You will get what you aim for” is very true, and if a practice is not targeting “joy,” then it will often find itself mired in people problems, dissatisfaction and conflict.  I submit that in order to create a sense of joy, fulfillment and peace, the leaders of the practice must be Coaching for Joy at Work.

          Coaching is an ideal model for leadership in the practice of orthodontics.  Many orthodontic staff members require highly specialized skills.  Just as the tennis forehand and backhand require precise consistency, so too does a banding, an arch wire change and an effective new patient enrolment process.   In many practices the staff members now function much more like associates than as assistants or coordinators.  These types of highly trained, highly valued “partners” can be rarely developed in the old management model of “boss to employees.”  A good coach recognizes that he/she must invest an adequate amount of time, energy, communications and modeling into each of his/her players to get them to their top potential on the team, and to get the entire team to function at peak performance.  The model of a “boss to employees” will rarely produce a practice environment conducive to creating joy and personal satisfaction for staff, nor for management.

          In his excellent book, Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore aptly defines coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.  It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them” (p.8).  Whitmore gives the analogy of an acorn, and how contained within, is all the potential necessary for it to grow up to be a magnificent oak tree.  So too each staff member must be perceived by the coach as simply needing nourishment, encouragement and light to achieve the “oaktreeness” that is already within.  His analogy leads to four very necessary concepts for successful coaching for joy: 

1. Successful Coaching Requires Trust:

          The first and preeminent concept for a successful coaching situation is the need for trust between the coach and the player.  Apart from trust and integrity, the player will rarely be coachable and no amount of training or encouragement will ever allow the player to develop their full potential individually or as a team member.  It must be recognized that the new team member who joins the practice may have already had experiences, good or bad, with other work environments, yet most will enter the new practice with a certain amount of faith, hope and trust in the new coach… at least until that trust is violated.

          Whitmore explains that each oak sapling less than a foot tall has a hair thin tap root that grows in length almost a meter downward in search of water and nourishment.  Unfortunately, many commercial nurseries take little care when transplanting the saplings.  When transplanting the sapling, if one does not go all the way down to the bottom of the pot where the tap root is coiled to include the tap root in tact, the unsuspecting purchaser is left with a sapling with significantly less potential for growth and a healthy existence. Each staff member brings to the practice a tap root of trust which is in tact, or damaged, and from which the coach must nourish, encourage and expose to the light.  Care must be taken by the coach not to damage this root of trust, and to allow it to grow so that the sapling itself can increase in its potential.

          Now imagine the day that Suzie Q walks into the practice full of life and adventure, ready to be trained as an orthodontic assistant.  The morning goes well and she receives training on the basics of removing, clipping and tying in wires; perhaps even is shown how to power chain. That afternoon things get busy so she spends most of her time doing the “the dishes” in sterilization.  In a moment of crisis someone asks her to start helping by tying in wires.  Everyone is pleasantly surprised at Suzie’s quick grasp of the wire basics, but when she steps outside of something she does not know, she is quickly scolded and told to ask for help.  Next a patient returns without a lower wire completely tied in, and soon the rumors fly that maybe Suzie isn’t going to make it.  A busy, well intentioned doctor tells Suzie at the end of the week that she is progressing nicely, but that mistakes are really not allowed in the practice, so she will need to learn quickly or she won’t make it.  Even if Suzie makes it past this typical “hazing” of a training program, she is often left with a sense of a lack of nourishment, encouragement and trust.  The reason is simple, all of her coaches were looking at her immediate performance instead of her potential.  What they failed to realize is that correcting her meager performance is nothing compared to allowing her tap root to grow and develop with trust and security.  When the manager and fellow staff damages her tap root they leave her vulnerable to questioning her own potential and thus cut her off from the source of nourishment necessary for greatness.

          It may be ideal to recommend a 90-180 day training program for all new staff, but this is often unrealistic.  Most offices do not have the luxury of being overstaffed enough to have a trainer and trainee available.  Instead, a work-training program should be established where the new assistant may work the first month in sterilization while being trained on wires, then progress through a series of chairs from easiest to most difficult over a period of a year.  The critical issue is that everyone, especially her coach must look past her performance to what her potential may achieve in 6, 9, and 12 months.  To negatively judge a sapling of an assistant before her first ninety days are completed, is to severe the tap root of trust making performance gains much more difficult to achieve.  Besides, it should be recognized that for the average assistant in training a light seems to turn on at about 5-6 months that immediately results in dramatic performance gains.  This light comes from confidence and confidence comes from trust and acceptance.  To accelerate performance gains the coach must accelerate these nourishments of confidence, trust and acceptance.  Vital to coaching for joy must be the understanding that we are no longer training for performance, but instead growing staff to reach their fullest potential.  Once a coach begins to look past immediate performance to one’s potential, then personal and professional growth is accelerated through affirmation, security and love.  With trust, commitment and love, any relationship will grow and flourish resulting in a much more joyful staff member and practice.

2. Successful Coaching Requires Self-Awareness:

          A second concept for coaching for joy must involve self-awareness.  Nothing is more frustrating to a player than to have the coach call “time out” and scold them for poor performance without giving any specific changes that need to be executed to improve performance.   “Try harder” may work if indeed the staff member or team is unmotivated, but if the performance is due to training weaknesses then the only way to improve is to create awareness of the specific deficiencies and their solutions.  Self-awareness is the single most important tool for any person to turn weaknesses into strengths and poor performance into quality.  I am able to control only the things I am acutely aware of, but the things of which I am not aware, usually control me.  Awareness empowers me to overcome the things that are holding me back from personal and professional growth.  If I can’t see it, I cannot change it.  If I cannot change it, it will control me and my destiny.

          How many times have I sat across the dinner table from a doctor listening to his/her perceived weaknesses of a staff member, only to discover that the staff member herself has never been made aware of these weaknesses.  Fear of confrontation keeps the coach silent, or worse yet, makes him/her pounce on the problem in an overly aggressive manner once fed up with the situation.  A great coach will correct each and every fault and mistake without punishment, sarcasm or belittling.  Imagine if the culture of the practice was such that each staff member truly desired to reach their fullest potential and based on a foundation of trust, commitment and love invited others to gently correct their mistakes.  No one enjoys criticism, but when one sees the criticism as ultimately helpful, and not hurtful, they will generally respond in making an effort to correct their weaknesses.

          Important to the concept of awareness is the understanding that one’s objectivity and reality is often distorted by childhood interferences, personality, expectations, hopes and fears.  If the player is not willing to own the perceptions of the coach, then there is little hope for change or growth in that area of their life.  Imagine how much personal and marital growth could take place if your spouse would simply change the three main faults you have asked them to change for the past 2 to 20 years.  You might say, “But I have made them aware of the problems for years, but they simply do not wish to change.”  It’s possible that you are married to a recalcitrant spouse, but most likely you are simply missing the secret key to coaching.  In order to improve at one’s game, or the game of life, one must demand to be made aware of one’s own weaknesses and areas for improvement.  Apart from creating a relationship where correction is seen as a helpful and not destructive, no coaching will be effective.

          Personal and professional growth will begin the minute an individual asks a trusted coach for help with their game.  Life is a wonderful game with many players and coaches interacting on an hourly basis to help each other become the best they can be.  Unfortunately, most humans have a built in switch that always tries to shut off communications when it begins to turn negative towards them.  If you are the type who hates criticism and sees it as your enemy, you will never be able to gain the self-awareness necessary to grow into your fullest potential.  Worse yet, one is doomed to repeating over and over again obvious weaknesses that push you further from your ultimate goals.  It is a sad commentary that one often learns more from their enemies about there true self than from their friends. 

          Practices must establish a culture of self-awareness where each staff member invites others to gently discuss with them any perceived deficiencies.  I may still choose to disagree with your point of view, but at least I know where I stand and I can try to overcome your perceptions.  Often the issues can be resolved by just creating a feeling of being listened to and understood.  Establishing Staff Agreements as to how each staff member will deal with the issues of upsets, correction and self-awareness will go along way to creating a coachable team.  If a team member cannot perform at the agreed upon minimum standards, then they cannot be part of the team.  Establishing those minimum standards through policies, procedures and Staff Agreements is vital to the coaching process.   

3. A Successful Coaching Style Requires Asking, Not Telling:

The third concept for coaching joy at work is the manner in which coaching takes place.  The ideal coaching style involves much more asking than telling, much more showing than dictating.  When one dictates they get the job done quickly and efficiently with a feeling of being in control.  The downside is that the team member feels obliged to accept responsibility, rather than choosing to personally own the issue.  When a coach takes the time to ask essential questions, not in a sarcastic manner, but in a way that the staff member truly senses that the coach desires to be helpful, then learning can explode forward.  By asking the right questions the coach will follow the staff member’s train of thought to discover the underlying reasons behind the deficiencies.  Too often the manager is so busy trying to correct the problems that they do not get to the heart of the matter.  Most repetitive problems have some sort of underlying difficulties that must be addressed or the problem will reappear.

          Imagine our assistant Suzie Q has now been with the practice for more than two years and she has mastered the basics of assisting, but has a significant deficiency with getting along with the Clinical Coordinator.  On a regular basis the Clinical Coordinator complains that Suzie Q is not a team player and does not desire to follow her leadership.  The successful coach will begin by asking a number of questions to discover the specifics behind the Clinical Coordinator’s complaint. 

 Are there any reasons that you can think of why our CC would not want to listen to you?

 Do you feel that the problem is only with Suzie, or are you having similar problems with other staff?

 Do you see this as a possible personality conflict between you two, or is there something that has happened between you two that has caused some hurt or pain?

Have you spoken to our CC directly about your concerns, and if so, what was her response?  If not, why haven’t you first addressed these issues with her directly?

What are your specific recommendations that I should do, or what should I say to our CC?

           Understanding the key issues is critical to being able to properly coach Suzie and the difficult staff member.  The Coach’s questioning may typically discover that the fault lies with both parties, and even some fault shared with management and systems.  For that matter, every coach should realize that the nature of teamwork typically results in a shared burden for any and all issues.  For that matter, all deficiencies on any team are directly the responsibility of the coach as a result of a lack of training, lack of correction, or a lack of encouragement.  Once the coach has gathered adequate facts, he/she then has a coaching session with Suzie and again simply asks questions:

 Suzie, are you aware that the Clinical Coordinator feels that you do not want to follow her lead?

Are there any reasons you might choose not to do what she asks you to do?

Do you see this as a possible personality conflict between you two, or is there something that has happened between you two that has caused some hurt or pain?

What specifics steps do you feel you can take to change our Clinical Coordinator’s point of view?

How can I help you to continue to grow into a great team player in our practice?

Can I count on you to go and resolve this issue on your own, or do you feel it would be best if I met with you and the Clinical Coordinator to discuss this further?

          The critical issue is not the questions themselves, but instead the method of “asking” instead of “telling.”  Individuals will never respond to dictates and demands the way they will respond to carefully placed questions that cause them to think through the situation on their own and ultimately decide to take responsibility for the change.  Demanding change from a staff member may work for a short period of time, but if she feels forced to do something she never agreed to, or desired to do, then the results often show up in other areas.  Getting a staff member to think through a situation and apply her own solutions is critical to successful coaching.

4. A Successful Coach Must Also Be Coachable:

          The fourth concept for coaching for joy must be a coach who is coachable.  At the beginning of my son’s senior year of basketball there were great hopes that with eight returning seniors the team would make it past the quarterfinals of the state playoffs and into uncharted territory into the semis or finals.  The coach’s expectations were so high that each and every time a player missed a shot he yelled, “Run the offense.”  If a player went outside of any design the coach would scold the players as a group.  One particular offensive spark plug of a player began missing even basic lay-ups.  So each breakaway the coach would yell out, “Don’t miss the lay-up!”  Finally, towards the end of the pre-season, one of the team captains took the coach aside and had a talk about the coach’s frustrations.  “The problem coach,” said the captain “is that you have some players scared to death to make a mistake.  All they can think about is not missing, so they have stopped concentrating on making the shot.”  The coach had fallen into a trap of looking at the team’s preseason performance and not at their potential.  Instead of correcting with encouragement and growth in mind, he had fallen into the trap of looking only at the immediate performance, or worse yet, anticipating a poor performance before the shot had every left the player’s hand.  To the coach’s credit, he did listen and reduced his negativity allowing the players to begin to excel back to their top performance levels.  It was amazing to see some players in particular who made dramatic turn arounds, not because their skill level changed, but because their tap roots were once again being fed with trusting, caring and loving words, instead of words of discouragement and distrust.

          Most importantly to this story is that the coach was willing to listen to another team member and be coachable.  Too often coaches, doctors and coordinators have little or no desire to either listen or to change.  A great coach is confident enough in their own abilities that they are open to helpful suggestions and constructive criticisms that will improve both their coaching style and the team’s performance.   After all, what is the ultimate goal?  Is it to be a great coach and lead the team to victory, or to be a boss who is always right and always in control?  Only if the coach is willing to be coachable will the team truly trust him/her and be confident in the decisions.  I suggest that every leader should spend at least an hour a month with his/her key coordinators asking them how they can be a better coach.  When a coach models coachability, his/her team knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a basis for trust, commitment and love.

 Specific Steps to Coaching Joy at Work:

To enhance joy at work a successful coach will employ five additional strategies:

 1)  Eliminate lone rangers as much as possible from the team.  Any team member who is unwilling to sign the Staff Agreements or live up to the minimum standards of the job should be traded to another team that is not interested in strong teamwork.  Perhaps a few exceptions can be made for those who work alone most of the day in the Lab or Financial areas, but even staff in these positions can sap a team of its joy and momentum if they are a negative influence. 

 2) Allow the team to decide as many practice issues as possible.  The most successful leader is one who engenders freedom; freedom to take initiative, freedom to have fun, freedom to make decisions.  Leaders must constantly seek the advice and suggestions from knowledgeable staff members.

      The more a team member feels part of the decision making process, the more she will bond to the team and take responsibility for its success.  These decisions may include:

-Deciding the purpose of the practice

-Hiring new staff

-Donations to the community

-Training programs or meetings they would like to attend

-Decorating or remodeling the office

-Marketing strategies, systems and ideas

-Deciding Staff Agreements

 3) Allowing staff to have fun and enjoyment is critical to creating joy at work.  The most successful practices recognize that creating a “professional image” must go hand in hand with giving off a sense of joy and enjoyment.  Surely the patients must be incorporated into the practice fun, and staff must not step over the line with being too loud or too personal with patients, or with each other.  But if a leader cannot create an enjoyable place to work, then he/she is at a significant competitive disadvantage is attracting the best workers.  I make every effort to help create a fun and enjoyable atmosphere in my client’s practices.  Then the question comes from our patients, “Why is this place so much fun?” 

     The answer is simple, “Why would we want to work in a boring place all day long when we can work in a place that is fun and exciting?”  Of course this leaves the questioner to answer the corollary question in their own mind: “Why would we want to go to a practice that is boring and ‘professional’ when we can have fun for the next two years with people who enjoy their jobs?”

 4)  Great joy cannot exist without greater discipline.  The irony of joy at work is that apart from certain disciplines, excellent quality and satisfaction of a job well done cannot be experienced.  Sure, work can be fun and produce great joy, but work by its very definition requires a certain sets of disciplines to get the job done properly, on time, and with quality.  Ask most unsuccessful adults what they regret most about their parents, and the response will almost always be, “I wish they had taught me more discipline!”  Many of today’s parents try so hard to be their child’s friend that they neglect the proper training disciplines that ultimately create a happy, successful adult.  A great coach, just as a great parent, will establish in advance the articles of discipline necessary to achieve the practice goals, standards and quality results.  

        When this consultant goes into unhappy practices there is often a uniform complaint that the coach is not exercising proper discipline.  The common result is that one or two team players are driving the rest of the team crazy and sapping their morale.  So now we come full circle, as joy at work cannot exist without a coach who is willing enforce all of the minimum standards of the job.  One primary standard is that of requiring each team member to come to work with a great attitude.  These minimum standards are non-negotiable, although they would ideally be set by the whole team, and enforced by the entire team, not just by the coach.   Ultimately, no matter how strong a staff member performs at skills of her job, if she cannot live up to a minimum standards of being kind, courteous, polite and caring with patients, fellow staff and the doctor, then she cannot play on a team that is seeking joy and fulfillment.  If a team member is regularly deficient in her work or work ethic, she must be traded for the sake of the team.  For when long-term turmoil sets into a practice the nourishment necessary for the team’s success is cut off or compromised by the lack of trust, commitment and love.

 5)  Ultimately, love is a critical key to Coaching Joy at Work.  Love says “I need you” and affirms that the other person is worthy and important.  Love goes straight towards a staff members tap root and attempts to provide nourishment of encouragement and discipline that will allow the individual to grow into a healthy team player, filled with joy and fulfillment. 

      Unfortunately, most coaches, just like husbands, do not realize that the alternate spelling for L O V E is:  T  I  M  E.  If a leader is not willing to take the time it takes to coach effectively, then what one finds is that all of his/her players are at different levels of skill, different understandings of the basic disciplines and goals, and at various levels of satisfaction with their jobs.  Time must be crossed off the schedule at least every 2-3 weeks for a three hour “lunch & learn” and various staff meetings to keep the team moving forward to its ideals and purposes.     

      An excellent definition for love might be:  “To seek the best interest of another in good times and in bad.” Love forgives mistakes and binds up hurts and frustrations with calming, gentle words.   Love, acceptance and trust are critical to any successful coaching style as each staff member longs to know that the coach truly cares about them as a person, just as much as he/she cares about them for the work that they do, or the customer service attitudes they display.  Show me a loving coach, who loves his/her players enough to create an enjoyable, disciplined workplace, and I will show you a winning team.

      This consultant believes that winning is everything if winning is defined as achieving those things which are most important in life!  But to win, a practice must first define its purpose and goals, followed by appropriate strategies and systems to achieving those goals.  Any practice purpose that does not include joy in the workplace is invalid and will never lead to true success.  No matter how great the quality or quantity of a practice, apart from recognizing that Relationships Are the Most Important Things in Life, to this consultant the practice is a failure.  One can find true fulfillment in a job well done, but one can never taste the joy that comes from helping others be the best they can be, if they are not willing to put others in front of their own needs and desires.

      Conclusion:  The Five Magic Words to Joy at Work:

     There are five magic words to creating fabulous relationships and ultimately achieving fulfillment and joy in whatever one does in life.  They are simple words that should be expressed verbally or in actions each and every moment of the day.  If you desire the best home, the best practice and the very best life filled with love, joy, peace and happiness, just practice these simple words:

      I Want to Please You

      It is when we put others before our own needs that we experience all that God intended for us.  For life must be much more than our circumstances, or wealth, or status, or the size of our practices.  It must be about helping others and seeking their best interests over my own.  This is the secret to a great practice, a super life and a fabulous society, if only we will seek to please others, more than ourselves.

      The analogy of the acorn and its tap root is one that should never leave our minds as we recognize how fragile each person’s source of nourishment can be.  If I want you to treat me with love, respect and kindness, then I must be willing to give you those same qualities.  It is into the hearts and minds of those who truly desire to please us that we can gain the greatest amount of trust commitment and love… which will propel us to reaching our fullest potential for living a strong, joyful life.