Sitting in an office with no windows and an old computer screen, Elena felt claustrophobic and nervous. Amy was an employee she valued and couldn’t lose. As the office manager, she was responsible for helping with annual reviews, but today the doctor decided to “let her handle it.” Amy was a loyal employee, but lately, she seemed disengaged. Elena had good reason to worry.

Like most office managers, Elena handled the difficult conversations the owners didn’t want to have. If the results weren’t what they wanted, it would fall to the office manager for not being able to communicate effectively. It certainly created a tense and uncomfortable situation, if not an impossible one. Elena was on her own. 

Communication is generally the most challenging part of ownership. We all think we’re great at it, but when it comes down to having those difficult conversations, we avoid them at all cost. Even when employee reviews are positive, they can create anxiety for both parties. So, how do we make the review process more manageable and take the pressure off people like Elena?

Be a Leader, Not a Manager

In leadership coaching, we discuss the difference between being a manager and a leader. Managers are responsible for making sure the day-to-day processes and procedures are followed. Leaders are responsible for motivating and communicating with the team so there is clarity around the expectations of the company and the people they serve. 

Owners should be leaders. Being a great leader means creating a psychologically safe place for your employees to succeed. It means creating clarity for each individual and developing a culture that motivates the team. This positive behavior is what your patients see and respond positively to. 

Get Rid of Annual Reviews

If you think about it, an annual review is not “annual.” Someone may have been excellent at their job 12 months ago but is struggling now. Which time period are you more likely going to discuss?

We live in an on-demand society. Our attention spans are stretched, and we can’t recall what happened twelve months ago. Let’s face it, most of us can’t remember what was important twelve hours ago. 

As a team member, this can be stressful because even though they are a model employee, they may have had some issues lately that affected their performance. Knowing it’s a “what have you done for me lately” environment can be tense with an annual review looming over their head. 

It’s also stressful for the reviewer. 

Stop Being Ambiguous

When we talked about leadership above, we stated that a great leader creates clarity. To accomplish this, you have to lean into any issues and address them at the time. Managers keep score and leaders coach. Which do you think your employees will appreciate more? 

Ambiguity is the opposite of clarity. It allows your employees to create their own internal dialogue that can be unhealthy. 

They may think they’re doing great when in reality, you’re actually frustrated with their performance. Imagine what a blow that would be to an employee when they’re told their performance isn’t meeting your expectations. 

The opposite is what happens in most cases. Employees aren’t sure how you feel about them, making them wonder if they’re doing a good job. A lack of clarity makes them focus on trying to meet your expectations instead of your patients’ expectations. Consequently, this is where performance will suffer, and your business will suffer. 

Be a Master of Feedback 

I’m not a big fan of an open-door philosophy. Saying “my door is always open” means you’re leaving it up to your employees to approach you if they have a problem. That’s uncomfortable for many people, especially if they have negative feedback to share. 

One of the most challenging parts of being a good leader is soliciting and providing proper feedback. Some are wired better than others for it, but everyone can do it. The secret is being consistent. 

Consistent feedback sessions create clarity and help you build better relationships with your team. Retention comes from relationships, and relationships come from knowing where you stand. No one should have to wait a year to know where they stand.

I have seen businesses have the most success with labeling their time with each employee as a feedback session or growth conference (Credit that one to Dr. Michael Williams). Don’t use the word meeting. A meeting doesn’t always invoke a positive response. 

You can do these as frequently as you like, but I’ve seen them be the most successful by taking a half-hour each week on a specific day at lunchtime or in the morning before you begin the day. Start with the first employee, and each week meet with a different one. If you have a large team of ten or more, I suggest developing a leadership team that can help with these feedback sessions. 

Keep it Simple

Keep these sessions simple. You can have a format, but I would make this more about how you can help each other than about performance. Saying, “Your performance has been off the last few months. What is happening with you?” would not be effective.  

Try something like, “I noticed you don’t seem like yourself the past few weeks. I value the work you do here and the spirit you bring to the team. Is there anything I need to be aware of to make sure you are as successful and happy as you can be?” Always make it about them VS what they’re not doing for you. 


What?! Yes, I said cheat. Utilizing assessments that help you know how people behave and what they value is excellent leadership. Speaking to people in their preferred behavioral style and speaking to their values is the best way to create trust and build a lasting relationship. 

A significant next step for success in your business is to learn everything you can about your employees. Nothing helps with employee retention more than excellent communication. Take a look at a sample values assessment and see if this would be helpful in communicating with each member of your team. 

You can download a sample here.

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About the Author Ben Shaver

For over a decade, I've guided growing dental practices and groups on how to use leadership and communication to build referable teams and memorable brands.

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