Creating Positive and Effective Communication

Ditch the platitudes and dig deep within your organization.  

By Lorri Detrick, President and Chief Operations Officer, Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry

When we think about communication across our organizations, no matter the size, platitudes often come to mind:

  • It’s important to “cascade” the information.
  • Share what’s positive in public and what’s negative in private.
  • There’s no such thing as over-communicating.

These are not wrong. In fact, just the opposite. Platitudes become such because they make a point worth repeating. The problem is that they are repeated so often we stop hearing, or utilizing, their meaning. At Riccobene, we have started to take a hard look at this and work to become an organization that communicates consistently and well. 

Whether intentional or not, we are communicating all the time. As leaders, we are always being observed. People create stories based on the moods they perceive or what they think they have heard amongst their leaders. So, it’s up to us to cultivate self-awareness about the messages we portray and the environment we create through our behavior as well as our words. 

Core Values

The people in our care and those working with us to achieve our goals will only hear what they see demonstrated authentically. We need a rubric or template that clearly defines what this actually looks like, and how it is lived out in the most practical of ways. The identification, definition, and demonstration of core values are exactly that. Without such, effective communication is nebulous, if not impossible. 

At Riccobene, we have five core values that we’ve spent many hours debating and committing to as a leadership team: Adaptability, Compassion, Competence, Integrity and Teamwork. Intentionally listed alphabetically, they are not ranked and are equally important. They impact the way we do business, provide patient care, and most certainly, how we communicate with each other. They remind us of the effort and diligence required to build effective relationships internally and externally. They keep us focused on the tangible actions of communication. 

No easy way 

Even with core values, there are no shortcuts to prioritizing effective communication within our organizations. I am the worst offender when it comes to sending a quick email to the “All Employee” distribution list and calling it good. I’ve cascaded the message. I have even spent hours crafting exactly the right message – striking the right tone of motivation and accountability, of education and explaining the “why.” But here’s what we know: only a small percentage of the organization will thoroughly read the email, if they read it at all, and an even smaller percentage will actually hear what I intended to say.

At Riccobene, we communicate through email, Teams chats (many), texting, video calls, phone calls, meetings (many) and an all-employee newsletter called The Weekly Incisor. Our leadership teams constantly consider the right talking points in order to provide consistent messaging to all sectors of the organization. We think we are pretty darn good at communicating. At the very least, we do A LOT of it.

Still, whenever we elicit employee feedback (i.e., engagement surveys, exit interviews, stay interviews, performance evaluations), we hear that we don’t communicate enough. It’s frustrating and disheartening to be sure. But in a drive to address this feedback – and remain committed to our core values – we are intentionally taking a path that goes deeper than sharing bullet points and announcements as our primary forms of communication. Much more is required. 

Communication is the relationship

In the fourth quarter of 2022, we brought in a leadership consultant to meet with all the managers across the organization. Eighty team members came together for two days of professional development training centered around communication. We believe it was the beginning of a transformation that will likely take years to fully take hold, but that will pay unlimited dividends.

We practiced the how-to of effective communication. We talked with each other about being curious, asking questions, staying present, taking responsibility for our internal opinions and attitudes, and allowing for silence, among other key concepts. Underneath it all was the revelatory learning that relationships cannot happen without communication, and perhaps more importantly, the reverse.

Relationships take time to build. Meaningful, authentic conversations are hard. Both require intention and diligence. If we do not prioritize them equally and take actions accordingly, the myriad surface-level, even important emails/Teams chats/texts/calls and meetings remain mostly unheard. 

Hoping it doesn’t become a platitude

One of my favorite quotes in this realm is by Maya Angelou: 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

I don’t want this to become a platitude. As a leader, if I communicate with self-awareness and a commitment to our core values, if I take the time to build relationships one by one with authenticity and courage, I will begin to communicate effectively. And along the way, perhaps I’ll even move the needle ever-closer toward our goals. 

Our mission at Riccobene is “Changing Lives One Smile At A Time.” Dr. Riccobene consistently reinforces that this is not only about changing the lives of our patients, but our employees as well. Our commitment to communication and relationships – as intertwined and interdependent concepts and intentional action – is a journey we believe will both strengthen our organization and change lives. Hardly a platitude, it is worth every effort we can possibly extend.

Lorri Detrick is Chief Operations Officer at Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry, which operates in North Carolina and Virginia. The organization has about a thousand employees, including 120 dentists, across 55 locations.