Staff, Team, or Tribe?

August 20, 2019
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Employees present the most challenging part of running a dental practice, or for that matter, ANY business. People are complicated and challenging.

And, because dental practices also deal with people (patients) who might be in pain or under other stress, the human factor in dental practices can present significantly greater challenges than in most other businesses.

Understanding the staff-team-tribe continuum can help you craft an office that fits your personality, goals and vision. Knowing which of the 3 you want your practice to become can be very helpful in the attraction, hiring and on-boarding processes.

Briefly, a staff is a collection of people employed to perform a job. They are “workers”, “employees” and “laborers” who provide labor and manpower. Having a staff can help spread workload and increase productivity. A “staff” is a collection of “employees”. They are loosely connected and each member of a staff is focused on their specific job or project. Employees work to be paid.

At its best, an office with employees or staff is, what Seth Godin, in his book “Linchpin” refers to as a collection of cogs. A “cog” is dependable. When a cog breaks, it can be replaced and the same results can be expected.

A “team” is a collection of people who work together towards a common goal. At their best, people on teams are linked to the vision and mission of their organization. Teams have purpose and work performed towards that purpose improves the self-worth of each of the team members. Successful team members feel as if they are making a difference.
Seth Godin refers to such successful, team members as linchpins. A linchpin is a team member that you cannot imagine being without. Without such a team member, your company would not be as functional.

Having a TEAM is most often preferable to a STAFF, though it does require a significantly different system to attract, maintain and retain.

The pinnacle of the continuum is the TRIBE. A tribe is a collection of people who know WHY they are together, are passionate about their tribe’s CAUSE and trust each other to what is necessary to support that CAUSE.

In his book “Turn The Ship Around”, Captain David Marquet relays the story of how a submarine crew evolved from a group of underperforming, haphazard, followers into a TRIBE who covered each other’s backs, becoming the best ship in the fleet.

Indeed, Captian Marquet shows how you can move an existing staff forward towards a team or even a Tribe.

Tribes share a culture. The question always arises; How do you create a Tribal Culture.


1. Tribal Leaders are committed to both learning and teaching.
2. Tribes are united via a set on clearly defined and communicated CORE VALUES.
3. Tribal members feel that they BELONG and are hence feel supported and safe.
4. Tribes often thrive on competition or threats from the outside.
5. Great Tribal leaders have the ability to capitalize on specialized skills and strengths of the members.
6. Tribes celebrate their victories and recognize individual achievement.
7. Tribal leaders focus on the future survival of the tribe by providing access to necessary tools and resources.

This is blunt. Usually, you attract what you deserve. As most practice managers know, an office with a good culture will not tolerate a member with a poor one. That is, as long as there is a defined, and highly functional culture in place.

Put a good person in a practice with a poor culture and you can almost guarantee that that person will either leave or sink to the lowest common denominator.

Yet, the challenge is how can you attract the right people? You start by having a clearly defined culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to build and maintain a culture of excellence.


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Dr. Michael Goldberg is one of the leading educators on dental practice management in the United States.

Michael ran and sold a prestigious group practice in Manhattan and has been on Faculty at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Medical Center for 30 years including Director of the GPR program and Director of the course on Practice Management.

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