What Managers Can Learn From Dental Hygienists


Sitting in the dentist’s chair during a routine appointment this morning, it struck me that in almost four decades of dental visits,  every dental hygienist I had ever met had  almost exactly the same demeanor.  Not one single time had a hygienist been anything other than upbeat, personable, attentive, and caring.

That’s quite remarkable, I think. Like everyone else,  I’ve had waiters who were personable and engaging, and those who were grouchy and withdrawn; sales clerks who were enthusiastic and helpful, and those who were sullen and unaccommodating; etc. What could account for this consistency among hygienists?  I think that part of the answer, oddly enough, may help managers increase the performance of their team members.

 Characteristics Held in Common

Given this commonality among their temperaments, I have to assume that hiring hygienists is directly based on these characteristics (after considering their technical competence, of course).  However, that’s not the thing that is necessarily instructive.

As dental hygiene is a care-giving field, it only makes sense that it would attract care-giving personalities.  I suspect, though, that there must be other factors coming into play to sustain the near-universal contentment that hygienists seem to bring to their work – such as:

  1. A positive outlook — coming from their knowledge that even small improvements in dental techniques or habits that they can instill in their patients will bring incremental health benefits
  2. A sense of accomplishment – coming from immediate, visual evidence of how they have helped their patient during that day’s visit
  3. A sense of meaning – coming from knowing that how they spend their day helps virtually every person they come in contact with to feel better in some way.

In this way, the contentment might not only stem from the personality that the hygienist brings to work, but also from the meaning (and response) they get back from the work itself.

A Lesson – and a Challenge – For All Managers

“Good for them,” you may be saying, “but most of our employees are far-removed from touching actual customers on a daily basis.  How can this pertain to our firm?”

It is absolutely true that many employees – such as those in manufacturing or support functions, for example – can spend their whole career without ever interacting directly with a customer or end-user of their goods or services.  It is also absolutely true that every one of us – regardless of function or level –  finds far greater fulfillment, and thus brings far greater happiness to the workplace, when we can see the meaning in our work.  Reconciling these two ideas is the manager’s challenge.

In “Helping People Win at Work,” by management expert, Ken Blanchard, and WD-40 CEO, Garry Ridge, they tell the story of Nancy, a long-time mailroom employee, who Garry overheard complaining about boxes of supplies she was shipping to their new China facility.  Not long thereafter, he visited the China facility:

“… where I saw a bunch of kids walking to school wearing these lovely uniforms and shoes.  And I thought, ‘I’m sure WD-40 bought some of those shoes, because we employ about 40 or 50 people here.’

So I went back to Nancy and said, “Hey, Nancy, if you thought the effort you spent getting WD-40 materials ready to send to China was creating employment there – and, therefore, helping to put a pair of shoes on the feet of a little Chinese girl who now has the opportunity to learn and make a difference in the world – would that mean anything to you?’

She said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’

I told her that’s what had happened.  Her whole attitude changed.  What a memory-maker that was for her.”

Admittedly, not every employee in every business is going to have the opportunity to have an interaction like this with their CEO that dramatically conveys a sense of meaning to them.  But if we believe that each person’s work has meaning, then the challenge for managers is to help each employee see and understand the meaning in their work in real and visceral ways.

When we are able to do so, it can make all the difference in the world.

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