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Ego is the Enemy of Collaboration. Here are 3 Ways to Get Past It.

Posted February 16, 2021

Tonya Lanthier, RDH

Whether you’ve worked 10 days or 20 years, we likely all have a good ego story, whether it’s an embarrassing personal experience or an experience we had with a colleague or employer. My experience is permanently seared into my brain! 

When I was a young hygienist, I worked with a dentist who — I kid you not — took my sandwich out of the refrigerator (before I had lunch), took a bite out of it, and put it back. Essentially, if it entered his office, it was his. You can imagine what a fun office culture that created. I also worked with another dentist who could not stand if a patient gave me a compliment. Even though the praise also reflected positively on him, he couldn’t stand for anyone else around him to shine.  

Ego thwarts success

As both a hygienist and a business owner, I’ve seen from both sides how ego can thwart success and squash morale. When the right processes are in place and the team is collaborating, egos are scarce and success is much more likely. 

Everyone thrives when dental offices work toward a collaborative practice culture, where both clinical and administrative staff can freely and comfortably communicate about patient care for the sake of the team. Why? Because harmonious workplaces yield better patient care and experiences. After all, that is our shared purpose and what drives us as dental clinicians and professionals. From sharing equipment to establishing protocols and consulting each other on cases, collaborative mindsets are pervasive and make for more profitable and productive practices. 

How does ego show up in a dental practice?

Our sense of self-esteem, self-importance, and power is tied up in our ego. In reasonable doses, ego can be healthy. Good self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth are the traits of “A” players. But, when ego goes unchecked, a person’s sense of self can go off the charts and the effects become problematic.  

Here’s how that looks in the operatory:

  • Territorial around their patient or their patient’s case, and unwilling to hear another perspective.
  • Their thoughts and their agenda come first. 
  • Not listening to the patient (and, we don’t just mean that they didn’t really floss everyday!)  
  • Need to be in control at all times, not willing to ask for help when required. 
  • Overly defensive or desperately try to avoid looking like they don’t have the answer. 

Behaviors like these can KILL collaboration. 

How do we know when our egos have taken control?

It’s not always easy to recognize when our ego has taken over. But it can happen to any of us and becomes extremely frustrating to those around us. For example, a dentist may bring in a new partner, but sabotage the partnership because their ego prevents them from giving that partner any of their patients or the more complex patient cases. Similarly, hygienists can be very protective of patients they like and keep them from seeing anyone else in the practice, even if sharing the workload is better for the patient and the practice. 

The ego and need for control are essentially standing in the way of the dentists’ and hygienists’ success and their freedom. Bringing on a new team member is supposed to help lighten the workload and build the practice, not cause a new kind of stress. Ryan Holiday tells us in his book, Ego Is the Enemy, “If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.” 

So, how can we be more mindful and more honest about our egos?

Sometimes you just need to pause and pat yourself on the back that you have reached a higher form of self. Say to yourself, “He or she needs the ego stroke and I don’t, and I’m okay with that. I do a great job caring for my patients and they love me.” Doing so shows you’ve evolved beyond your own ego and you are actually in control. The other person is out of control because their big ego is controlling them. 

1. Focus on your shared purpose. Communicate it often.

Shared purpose is the foundation for collaboration. The first and most important step on that path is communicating what that shared purpose is. You will need to do this many times, so it is clear and understood. This is where strong leadership comes in. The best leaders know their job is to create and maintain a workplace where everyone is engaged and moving in the same direction, so we can have a pleasant workplace while providing the best care for our patients. That means we, as leaders, need to consistently show up and define what a quality patient experience will be and set collaboration as a core value. 

  • Be as specific as possible. 
  • Roleplay or provide scenarios to show your team what that looks like. Make this interactive so they, too, can provide insight into what collaboration means to them. 
  • Post your shared purpose or core values in areas in your office so it is a daily reminder to your team. (The workstation’s screensaver, break room, etc.) 

Getting input from the team helps ensure everyone feels invested and “owns” the purpose. Then, check in with each other regularly so everyone on your team can clearly see how their participation directly helps the greater cause: better patient care. 

2. Humility & Respect: Antidotes to Ego

Throughout history, the brightest and best people, the ones who achieved the most, acknowledge two things: the people that help them accomplish what they do and the mistakes that they themselves have made along the way. That kind of accountability is contagious and spreads. It starts at the top. If leaders admit their vulnerability, they set a standard that encourages everyone around them to do the same. Team members at every level will feel empowered to hold themselves accountable. 

People who practice humility handle stress more effectively and claim higher levels of both physical and mental well-being. They also show greater generosity, collaboration, and gratitude. Ultimately, it’s about the patients. For the sake of collaboration, we must also recognize that it’s about the whole team. Reflecting on successes the team has achieved can spark gratitude, and build a sense of humility. That’s a good cycle to start: humility, positive reflection, gratitude and more humility.

3. Be a lifelong learner. 

Whether you’re a leader or team member, it’s important to always be learning from other people and listening to them. When ego is set aside and you make it a priority to lift others up, the team’s real potential can be achieved. That’s when clinicians share observations about patient health, solid systems are put in place, and teams begin to solve problems together and focus on work for the good of the whole practice. As dental clinicians we put value on our continuing education certifications. We must also value and be open to learning from colleagues who will see things differently, and have knowledge that we may not. This practice keeps us humble and feeds our brains rather than our egos. We need to trust each other and be open to hearing what others have to share. 

When dentists respect hygienists as the professional clinicians they are, they listen when hygienists flag issues they notice in patients. A patient won’t always tell you everything going on with them. I’ve learned to look closer and lean on my education and intuition to get the true picture. One of my patients, for instance, didn’t tell me he was taking a huge amount of ibuprofen for back pain. During his exam, I discovered he was anemic. I told him to go to his doctor that day. As it turned out, he had a bleeding ulcer from all the ibuprofen and needed two blood transfusions. 

From struggles come strengths

I actually grew the most in my career and learned the most from people who were the hardest to work for. It’s tough, but you learn how to get what you want and need. That actually helps you become more flexible, so you can move on, do more and succeed. But it also helps everyone else, too! 

Remember the dentist who ate my sandwich? I learned so much and made some great connections with movers and shakers in Atlanta because of my working for him. It was there I first was exposed to the DISC assessment that I still use to this day to help me see people — coworkers, patients and dentists differently, better understanding them so I can work with them more effectively, still honoring who they naturally are.

At DentalPost, we talk a lot about DISC and emotional intelligence (EI), the latter of which centers on self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy. By focusing our efforts around ego with intention in these areas, we can let go of our egos, cultivate better team collaboration, which will make for better versions of ourselves, our teams and better patient care. 

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