Trust… and when it stops

Too often disagreements are allowed to grow, resulting in a situation where there is no turning back. Alun K Rees explains how communication and contact are essential for relationships to survive.

“Confucius told his disciple Tau-king that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three they should give up weapons first and food next.” So starts Onora O’Neill’s first BBC Reith Lecture in 2002.

My work regularly brings me into contact with people who have been hurt in some way. They may have had arguments or been involved in disputes, either personal or in business with others. Ninety five times out of a hundred, the problems could have been avoided or minimised, meaning that both parties retained their dignity and decorum.

Too often, disagreements are allowed to grow, resulting in a situation where there is no turning back. From my early days as a clinician and in latter years a “trouble shooter”, I have come across disputes and the subsequent fall out.

My first post in general practice was in a busy 100 per cent NHS practice that would be known as an “amalgam factory” these days. I took over a surgery where one of the founder members had worked until his departure.

Are you trustworthy? Can that trust survive testing?

I learned that a dispute between the partners, which started small, had grown until it had a life of its own. Eventually there were legal hearings, with both sides represented by barristers. One of the remaining partners, “Q”, told me, “the money didn’t matter, it was the principle”. The principle came at a cost,
a five-figure sum, not insignificant in 1981. I didn’t enjoy working there, Q could be challenging, critical and was very competitive; he knew he was the best dentist in the practice and told anyone who would listen, including his other two partners. I lasted longer than most associates but eventually Q stopped me seeing new patients because his book was getting thin:

I discovered this when a receptionist told me. I asked him about it and he suggested that I “sharpen my probe”. Could he not have explained this to me himself? I asked. He said it was his practice and if I didn’t like it, I knew what I could do. I gave three months notice and moved on, wondering if I could have done things differently.

Three years later, working in another practice with a principal who had recently taken control, I had a problem with the fit of a couple of crowns and rang the laboratory. I discovered they hadn’t made them; in fact they weren’t doing any work for the practice. In spite of my completing lab prescriptions in good faith, the work was being diverted under orders of the new “boss” to a cheaper laboratory. Again, it was news to me. Again, I gave notice and this time they decided to lock me out after a few weeks, as I was “being disruptive”. In both cases, trust had been lost.

Since then I have heard dozens of stories where there has been a breakdown in relationships because one or both parties have been less than completely honest, either with the other party or with themselves.

I have been asked by lawyers to help when both sides are deadlocked. It came as a surprise initially that most reasonable solicitors would advise their clients to explore a negotiated outcome in order to avoid escalation and massive fees.

Of course in every business, and personal relationship, there will be disagreements. But there are things that you can do to avoid or at least minimise problems. Ask yourself whether you are worthy of trust and if you trust the other person involved. In the UK & Ireland, trust in any dental system that involves government is at an all time low. The replacement of trust in professionalism by inspections typified by the CQC in England has further undermined confidence.

Management structures have eroded trust; the introduction of targets has resulted in a blurring of what good performance means. The growth of corporates has resulted in an evolution of relationships, not always for the better. Of course everyone must have a contract, in writing, but any contract is open to interpretation. As one of my favourite lawyers pointed out to me, “the longer and more detailed the contract, the more there is for me or my colleagues to pick away at and challenge”. One test is clarity. Do you and your colleagues both understand what you are agreeing? Is the language clear to both sides?

Above all, communication and contact are essential if a relationship is to endure. All circumstances change and the context of relationships vary. We are expected to show empathy to patients, what about to each other?

Baroness O’Neill says she doesn’t want more trust as such, but aims to have more trust in the trustworthy, but not in the untrustworthy. Are you trustworthy? Are you seen to be trustworthy? Can that trust survive testing?

Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career, he now works as a coach, consultant, trouble-shooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others’ successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.

Published: 18 July, 2022 at 10:21
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