We've had my mother staying with us for the last few days and, as a result, a broader range of national newspapers than usual.  It was with interest that I noticed a headline referring to the 1 in 9 UK dental surgeries with poor infection control and hygiene issues.  We had a great discussion about the importance of leadership in this context and my mother asked the very valid question "What's leadership and coaching got to do with infection control in dentistry?"

As an ex-nurse my mother understands the whole need for scrupulous cleanliness and the new regulations about what you can and cannot re-use.  She rapidly appreciates the importance of improving the systems and how the focus should be on better patient care.

In my experience this technical appreciation is typical - the 'what' and the 'how' are easy to communicate.  What's challenging for people is the 'who'.

Leadership is vital to improve infection control because staff look to the example set by people at the top of the organisation - no matter how large or small the practice.  Some leaders tell us how unfair this is and others love this sense of power; because they have a massive impact - even when they do something very minor.

This is not so much leadership by example; I'm not suggesting that every dentist has to go and separate out the re-usable from the disposable items, load up the autoclave and personally inspect every item.  There madness lies.

I'm recommending leadership by tone: setting a tone of high standards, good systems and processes - and an expectation of quality improvements.

Setting a tone for your leadership is vital in order to inspire and influence others.  The tone of your leadership communicates to others that "this is the way we do things around here".

  • 'Tone' is an expression of your leadership values.  If you tolerate sloppy hygiene practices, then that's what you'll get.  If you set a high quality standard for infection control, that's what you'll get more of.
  • By 'setting a standard' I don't mean writing a memo, or sending an email.  I mean walking through the best possible process in your practice with your staff;  praising them for well-laid out equipment, tidy cupboards and drawers, scrupulously clean work areas - whether your patients can see them or not.
  • Setting a tone for leadership doesn't allow poor practice to go unchallenged - but neither do you need to publicly humiliate staff either.  A quiet word to correct things that aren't up to scratch is often enough.  By contrast, you can be as loud and public as you like when you see things that are going well.

Sometimes people tell me this won't work.  It certainly takes some investment in your own leadership development to build confidence around these skills.

For us, leadership development's the easy part.  The biggest challenge, in my experience, is for leaders to be willing to be different; to improve their staff relationships, to listen to them and to acknowledge and encourage them when they do meet your standards and expectations.

It's not just standards of infection control that will improve under your better leadership.  Leadership in dentistry is all about the who, the what and the how.  You show me something that you want to improve in your practice (the 'what') and I'll show you that by being more coach-like in your leadership - by coaching and listening to your team (the 'who') - they'll show you the 'how'.  This will improve your confidence in your team, leaving you with fewer worries about inspections and more time to focus on meeting  your patients needs - with definite benefits to the bottom line.