Is there a saboteur on your team?

on 17th June 2019

Simon Hocken explains why you should be extra vigilant and learn to spot negative members of staff


haven’t counted, but I must have visited more than 500 practices since starting life as a dental business coach in 2003. And visiting a practice for the first time is always the most revealing visit. My radar is carefully tuned for clues as to what is really happening below the surface and the team are often a little off-guard and therefore people reveal themselves perfectly.

Most practices have got one. I usually spot them really early on. It’s like a sixth sense after so many practice visits: the practice manager warily eyeing me from the safety of her office; the receptionist avoiding eye contact, firmly planted behind her desk; the hygienist leaving early or the associate who tells me that he listened to a coach talk at a conference once, but he didn’t think such ideas would work in this practice…

There is usually just the one saboteur per practice and often, it is a favoured team member who has the ear of the practice owner, thanks to them being there for many years supporting the practice (and sometimes the principal) through thick and thin. The principal often imagines that they simply have their best interests at heart, but actually, these days, they have their own best interests at heart and they really want everything to stay just the same so that they can maintain their comfortable (but seemingly busy) life.

I imagine their internal narrative sounds something like this, ‘And now he’s invited this bloke, (calls himself a coach) to tell him what’s wrong with the practice. I could do that, he doesn’t need to spend all this money on this guy and, anyway, there’s nothing wrong really, it’s all just fine as it is, and once he’s out of here we can just get on with doing what we are doing now. I know the principal, he doesn’t really want change…’

When I ask the principal about a likely ‘saboteur’, they generally behave like this:

1. They tell me how wonderful the ‘saboteur’ is; how well they know the practice and the patients; and how they can’t imagine what they would do if they ever left; and how worried they would be that if they did leave, then many patients might leave too…

2. As the coaching begins to kick in and we start measuring the practice’s performance, the principal starts to quietly observe the ‘saboteur’, who is avoiding making the changes that have been requested of them or they are going around them…

3. After a while, the principal gently challenges the ‘saboteur’ on this, and they often react in a really volatile way, as if throwing a match into a box of fireworks.

4. Now the principal is confused, surprised and scared that the ‘saboteur’ might leave and tries to placate them, who then promises to embrace the new working practices.

5. After another while, the principal sees that this is simply not happening, along with a raft of observations of other things they thought were happening and aren’t.

The simple truth is that these people are resistors. They truly believe that the old ways are just fine and, sooner or later, the principal will come to their senses. Needless to say, they will slow you down and actively resist change ~ at the same time as they notionally agree to embrace it!

Of course, not everyone finds change easy and many people have chosen to work in dentistry because it didn’t change. This was true, but the pace of change in the world of dentistry has increased significantly in the last few years, and isn’t about to slow down anytime soon…

How to spot your ‘saboteur’

They appear to be good at their job (as long as it stays exactly the same)

If you observe them closely, you will find that their behaviours are mainly self serving rather than helping the practice or patient

They often have knowledge of elements of the practice that no-one else knows. This gives them a perceived power base

Other members of the team are not entirely sure what they do, but they always seem (and complain about being) busy

They often know a lot of patients extremely well

The principal is quite soft on them, in that they don’t seem to have to obey the same rules everyone else on the team has to obey, such as turning up on time, using the computer, etc

These behaviours inevitably create the same set of outcomes: the practice is in a steady state or shrinking; the team often divides into those who like the ‘saboteur’ and are in the same gang, and those who don’t and aren’t; the principal feels in some way a (willing) hostage of the ‘saboteur’, and the ‘saboteur’ is often favourited by the principal.

What to do?

If you want to change, develop and grow your practice, you have to create a situation where the ‘saboteur’ has to shape up or ship out. And nine out of ten of them end up going. They either:

Do something that allows you to sack them

Have to be performance managed (which they hate) and then they resign

Resign (eventually) as they realise that the status quo is finished.

When they leave the practice the change in the air is tangible. Surprisingly, despite the principal’s gloomiest predictions, the sky doesn’t fall in and everyone is a lot happier (both team members and patients – positivity is infectious!) Sometimes, saboteurs have put together a little cabal, and once they leave, the members of the (now leaderless) cabal leave too. Another good result for the practice!

Typically, productivity and performance across the practice improves very quickly: other members of the team can now flourish, embrace the changes and display exemplary standards of performance and behaviour. Others, who are more fearful of change, may now realise there maybe something positive in the new ways, and decide to take them onboard and realise this is a much more pleasant way of working.

It is critical that the principal takes a strong and supportive leadership role in making changes to the practice’s way of working. Every team member needs to understand the reason for change, what’s in it for them (and the practice), and adequate training and appraisal/feedback to support them in carrying out the new ways of working effectively. This gives everyone the chance to ‘shape up’, or the choice to ‘ship out’.


Simon Hocken

Simon established three practices as a dentist before founding the dental consultancy Now Breathe in 2007. He specialises in supporting principals and their management team in making change happen. He speaks regularly at major dental forums, as well as writing for leading publications, and lectures and writes for academic courses.



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