Why the Psychology of Change Matters

Why the psychology..2“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”– Benjamin Franklin

Everyone working to help orthodontic practices grow and prosper here in the 21st century knows from experience that Franklin’s adage is as true now as it was in his time— and maybe more so. Keeping up with modern-day advances in communications technology alone is an ever-ending challenge.

Successful practices are always trying new things. They’re bringing in new equipment one quarter, implementing new patient-care protocols the next, and installing new appointment software the one after that. Here at the Pride Institute, we often work with clients to help them implement change in more efficient and effective ways.

One of the key lessons we’ve learned in this work is that psychology matters. By paying attention to a few basic tenets of “the science of the mind,” practices can put themselves in position to do a better job of managing change and making sure that new business strategies succeed.

Kayla’s Challenge

“If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” –        Psychologist Kurt Lewin

Consider the case of “Kayla.” She is a socially gifted and quite capable young dental assistant, which is why she’s so popular with the patients at her smallish orthodontic practice. When that practice launches a new patient referral campaign, Kayla is chosen as the point person. It will now be her job to ask patients face to face if they’d be willing to refer friends and family members.

Everyone, including Kayla, is excited about the initiative. They all believe that it will increase their referral rate and help the practice grow. But despite her enthusiasm and good intentions, Kayla’s performance turns out to be underwhelming.

Here is where a little familiarity with psychology can help. Take a look at the sidebar story here and you’ll see short, straight forward definitions of three terms: habit, attitude, and cognitive dissonance.

What’s happening in Kayla’s case is that there is a mental disconnect between how comfortable she is with her old workplace habits and the hopeful attitude she has about the new referral strategy. That’s where her cognitive dissonance lies, and it’s the key to understanding why she can’t get over the hump and fully embrace the new strategy.

It turns out that old habits really do die hard, especially in the workplace. Habit is a big part of why Kayla is so good at her job. She does it all day long, every day, and she’s been doing it for years. Psychology teaches us that repetition on such a scale increases the “automaticity” of behaviors, making them so routine that they become something akin to reflexes.

This phenomenon can undermine even the most sincere attempts to change and adopt new behaviors. What often happens when the brain grapples with cognitive dissonance is that it comes up with a rationalization to resolve the conflict between two competing ideas.

In Kayla’s case, her brain settles on something like: “You know what? These people aren’t coming here to help us get referrals, and they’re not going to want to give us any names.” This rationalization gives Kayla a sort of mental permission to either not ask about referrals at all or to do so in a half-hearted way. That way she gets to stay in the comfort zone of her old habits.

Managing Change

“In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes the way we do things around here.” – Management guru John Kotter

Why the psychology..3Despite her enthusiasm and good intentions, Kayla wasn’t ready to implement the new referral strategy. She needed more preparation, more support, and more time than anyone on the team anticipated at the outset.

The dynamic that Kayla’s practice went through is something that cycles through most attempts to make changes and improve operations in orthodontic practices. Think about all the different ways this kind of cognitive dissonance scenario can play itself out:

  • A promising new effort to better serve patient needs is launched, but it requires the team to stay an extra 30 minutes every day. Is this going to tax your team’s morale?
  • Why should team members go the extra mile to pursue a new strategy when there hasn’t been a pay increase for the past several years?
  • The team knows that it should say great things to patients and potential patients about the doctor, but that same doctor too often treats his employees indismissive or disrespectful ways.
  • Team members wonder: “Why should I work so hard to change my ways when my doctor is not changing her ways?”

In all of these cases, practices may be headed for a collision of one sort or another between old habits and new strategies. The implementation of change in an orthodontic practice depends critically on dealing with these kinds of psychological conflicts in ways that help team members make as clean a break as possible from their old habits, so that they’re free to embrace new ways of doing things.

“Successful practices are always trying new things. They’re bringing in new equipment one quarter, implementing new patient-care protocols the next, and installing new appointment software the one after that.”

The good news is that there are things every practice can do to get better at implementing change. The first is to create a culture of openness, where team members are confident that their concerns and complaints will be dealt with in a fair, straightforward, and respectful manner.

Sometimes this can require doctors and office managers to take a hard look in the mirror. One client of ours had fooled himself into thinking his staff was happy because they rarely complained. But the truth was that his team was tired of the way this doctor always replied to their concerns by saying things like, “That’s the way it is, so you’ll have to deal with it.” That staff had given up on open communication altogether.

The next thing that you can do is going to sound simple, but it really makes a difference. Just be aware of these basic tenets of psychology, and discuss them openly with your team. Let them read this article and then talk about it together. Give examples of times when you’ve resisted change in the workplace, and ask your team members to do the same.

In working with clients, we’ve often found that simply understanding these basic psychological phenomena is half the battle. Be aware as a new project gets under way that hitting the sorts of bumps in the road that Kayla encountered is not a sign of failure or defeat. Resistance to change is natural. It’s something you should expect to encounter along the way. And it’s something you and your team can overcome.

Why the psychology..1Ross Vera has 15 years of experience in Dental Practice Management and serves as a consultant at Pride Institute. He specializes in Leadership, Human Resources, and Specialty Dental Practice Building. Ross can be reached via e-mail at rossv@prideinstitute.com.


This article published in 2013 OrthoWorld.

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