9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Improving Employee Morale & Motivation: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine April 2007
Written by Angela R. Bowen, communications training coordinator for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center

Our morale is awful! Why can't they ever ...? They think we're kids; a sticker isn't going to improve my morale.

We've all heard comments like these. Morale is one of those hot button issues that never seem to go away. Whenever communications people get together, the subject somehow turns to morale. How can we get our people to feel more motivated? How can we improve the morale in our centers? To answer these questions, some comm centers have employee-of-the-month recognition programs or single out top employees in other ways. Some centers expect stickers or certificates that acknowledge everyday accomplishments to improve employee morale. Unfortunately, many of us have missed the big picture when it comes to motivation. The questioin we need to ask is: Whose job is it really to motivate employees and maintain morale?

The Pain Scale

I've been lucky enough to serve at almost every position in a communications center. I started out as a part-time telecommunicator, went full-time after a couple of months, then worked my way up through the ranks to the position of training coordinator while I also served as an unofficial human resources manager. As I progressed up the career ladder, my maturity level also progressed. I learned that some of the responsibilities I ascribed to my superior were really the responsibilities of those lower in the food chain.

As we gain responsibility, we seem to lose time exponentially. Things that our subordinates think are priorities move down our list of things to do to make room for those tasks that just cannot wait. Unfortunately, the only people who seem to understand the demands placed on supervisors and managers are other supervisors and managers.

Line-level personnel wonder what supervisors do all day. Supervisors wonder why managers can't address problems with the vending machine company or secure parking closer to the building for employees. Managers wonder why supervisors can't get their people to quit "calling in sick all the time." Line-level personnel complain that managers don't care about them if they won't give them a raise. All the while, managers are busting their collective behinds just to get enough money in the budget to keep the radios working and pay emplooyees something resembling a competitive salary. Morale in the whole department suffers because everyone is busy trying to figure out why other people in the department are always so negative.

I've discovered that no one can motivate anyone else to do something that person doesn't already want to do. Motivation and morale are the responsibility of each individual. Throughout our lives, we may meet a few rare and precious people who make us want to be a better person, communications officer, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, trainer, manager or any other role we find ourselves fulfilling. The people we consider motivational really just help us realize the things in ourselves that have been there all along. These motivators may inspire us to try things that we might have been considering but didn't think we were good enough, strong enough or witty enough to try. The bottom line is that whatever motivational people inspire us to do, the real motivating factor was already inside us. We just needed someone to point us in the right direction and get us to take the first step.

That brings us back to our first question: "How can we motivate our people?" The simple answer: We can't. We cannot make people feel motivated. We can, however, create an environment that fosters good morale, which will lead employees to feel more motivated to accomplish the goals they already have.

We need to rephrase the question and ask instead, "How can we create an environment in which our employees will motivate themselves?"

I'm sure someone out there is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars exploring that question in an academically sanctioned study that will reveal all kinds of existential and theoretical answers. But who in a public safety communications center has the time or the money to waste on an abstract, touchy-feely, hopelessly misdirected experiment? We need answers. Communications officials are used to responding to real-time, concrete, action-able intelligence. We want results, and we want them yesterday. Give me something I can work with, will you!

Morale Killers

Morale-building techniques that might work in a more traditional office or manufacturing environment may not work in a public safety communications center.

Reward programs are only as valuable as the employees perceive them to be. For example, employee-of-the-month programs often become nothing more than a popularity contest. When that happens, a tool we implemented to build morale actually kills it. When the decision is made to recognize a person as employee, calltaker, dispatcher or trainer of the month, we must take into consideration the image that person projects to their colleagues. Nothing is worse for the morale of good employees than to see someone who's not a good employee recognized with a special title because it's their turn.

Stickers and certificates have little impact on the long-term, overall morale of a comm center. Stickers remind employees of the "gold star" they might have received in elementary school. This reinforces the idea that management views employees as children who need to be coddled.

Certificates are appreciated only if they look professional and are awarded for a worthwhile reason. Many well-meaning managers have developed a program that awards certificates for almost everything in an effort to recognize the good work their people do day in and day out. Unfortunately, the effort backfires when the awarding of certificates becomes predictable and routine. The question remains, "How can we create an environment in which our employees will motivate themselves?"

Fostering Professionalism

To improve morale, every comm center must acknowledge that each person working in the center is an individual with a unique personality and distinct personal problems, likes and dislikes. Acknowledging that we are all different and that we're not going to agree 100% of the time is the first step. Recognizing employee individuality can go a long way toward making employees feel appreciated and like they're part of the team.

Another key step is getting the employees to look, feel and act like professionals. This can be accomplished by a strong leader who is willing to hold every employee to a high standard. Unless someone sets the tone, no one will live up to anything resembling professionalism.

Managers, supervisors, trainers and everyone else in a leadership position must realize that employees watch everything we do. Just as a child will repeat the worst cuss word they hear from their parent, employees will mirror the actions of their leaders. A manager who comes into work at 9:15 instead of 8:00, takes a two-hour lunch and leaves at 3:30 cannot expect employees to work longer hours without complaining. Granted, communications officers cannot set their own hours, but that won't keep them from trying. Likewise, a supervisor who's always late or who abuses sick leave has no credibility when trying to discipline employees for doing the same thing. Trainers who curse with every breath cannot expect the people they train to act any better. Professionalism starts at the top. A high level of professionalism leads to improved morale.

The next step is to realize that it's not what managers see as the big issues that destroy morale in a comm center, it's the small stuff. Someone once told me not to sweat the small stuff and to remember that it's all small stuff. Managers and directors of a communications center don't have that luxury.

Over time, small stuff grows llike a mold on week-old bread; what starts out as a small speck on one slice of bread that can easily and safely be torn away spreads in a matter of hours to ruin the entire loaf. I'm talking about keyboards that are missing keys; humming noises in the room that seem to get louder as the day goes by; policies that are so outdated they could have been written by Thomas Jefferson himself; refusing to let individual employees take advantage of professional development opportunities because some misdirected policy requires everyone to take part when the only people who want to participate are the people we won't allow to take part. Remember, small stuff becomes big stuff when it's not addressed.

Ways Managers Kill Morale

One huge morale killer is the manager who tries to be everyone's friend and nobody's enemy. These managers want to be liked by their people above all else. In that effort, they surrender their authority and adopt a management style in which decisions are based on who is involved, rather than what's right or wrong. These managers appear to be democratic by allowing employees to provide input. That's all well and good--if the buck stops with the manager.

Too often, these "democratic" leaders don't want to take the blame for bad decisions they make. They allow their employees to be scapegoats and will gladly throw them under the bus when it comes barreling down from the commissioner or city manager's office. These people think they are being servants to their employees, when all they are really doing is relinquishing authority and responsibility and failing to do their jobs.

A manager who doesn't take responsibility for what happens in their center is doing their employees a huge disservice. Everyone, regardless of their position in the organization, wants to be led. Even the director is led by someone, whether the leader is the county commissioner, mayor or a mentor. Everyone will follow someone, whether that person is a positive influence or a negative one. When your employees follow a negative influence, little things quickly become the 800-lb. gorilla in the center.

Another way we kill morale in our centers is by approaching the management of our employees as if they are children who need to be coddled and have their every move directed by someone smarter than they. We must treat adults like adults. Our society has become too soft. High school football teams that win one game all season get a second chance play-off. Teachers correct papers in purple ink because students are traumatized by the color red. Schools are banning tag and any other game in which one child might accidentally touch another. Everyone gets a raise, whether they've earned it or not. We don't say "Merry Christmas" because we might offend someone who celebrates a different holiday. Coca-Cola won't even put Santa Claus on its bottles any more because Kris Kringle is politically incorrect.

As an adult, I want to be treated as if I have at least half a brain and that I can handle someone telling me Happy Chanukah or wishing me a good Kwanza without my Catholic faith being offended to the point of causing me emotional distress. Employees want to know where they stand, even if they're standing in the middle of a firing squad. We don't do anybody any favors by keeping bad news to ourselves. Think of it this way, if you were walking around all day with your fly unzipped or your skirt tucked into your panty hose, wouldn't you want someone to tell you?

The Servant Leader

The concept of servant-leadership, a phrase coined by Robert Greenleaf, is a management style that can easily be applied in a public safety communications center to improve morale. According to Greenleaf, servant-leadership places the importance of serving others ahead of leading others in the list of priorities a manager might have. In other words, the servant-leader works to ensure that the people they lead have their highest priority needs met and that they are served by the leader, rather than vice versa.

"The best (and most difficult) test," says Greenleaf, "is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

Larry C. Spears, president and CEO of the Greenleaf Center, describes servant-leadership this way: "We are beginning to see that traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of leadership are slowly yielding to a newer model--one that attempts to simultaneously enhance the personal growth of workers and improve the quality and caring of our many institutions through a combination of teamwork and community, personal involvement in decision making, and ethical and caring behavior. This emerging approach to leadership and service is called servant-leadership."

How does servant-leadership play into morale? A recent informal survey of communications officers identified broken or poorly maintained equipment as the issue that causes them the most frustration on the job. A similar survey of communications managers identified pay as the No. 1 morale issue. This disconnect between what employees and managers see as the root of poor morale and low motivation--broken equipment vs. low pay--is a serious problem, but one that's easily remedied.

In agencies that have a definite division of power and responsibilities, the gap between employees and management can grow wider every day. As managers deal with the political pressures of running a center, they lose touch with the small problems that pop up in the room. Managers don't know when computer keyboards need repair or when chairs are broken. The only time they walk into the room is to accompany a visitor or to deal with a discipline problem. A supervisor may mention such things to the manager in passing, but as soon as the manager is back in their office, more pressing issues that have nothing to do with such seemingly minor issues as keyboards and chairs consume them. Meanwhile, the employees know that the manager has been notified of the problem and failed to address it. In their minds and in the supervisor's mind, that translates into, "The boss doesn't care."

The vast majority of communications directors and managers are trying extremely hard to make things better for their employees. However, without some practical advice from people who've been there/done that, some of these well-meaning professionals find themselves at one end of the management spectrum or the other. The management spectrum runs from micromanagement to full surrender of power and responsibility. We should strive to manage somewhere in the middle.

A servant-leader would first empower the supervisor to handle the issue, so problems are addressed before they get out of hand. But when notified of a problem, the servant-leader would stop whatever they were doing and ask the IT department or computer vendor to fix the keyboards or the chair vendor to fix or replace the chairs. Imagine if a supervisor were standing next to the director when those calls were made. Morale would improve, at least slightly, just because the director had made the effort. Morale would go even higher if the director asked the supervisor to report back if the issue wasn't resolved within a certain period of time. Imagine how empowered the supervisor would feel and how center morale would improve when employees know the director has actually addressed a problem the employees perceive as the biggest obstacle to doing the very best job they can.

No comments:

Post a Comment