Written by Kathleen Jameson, retired from Colorado State Patrol as the Communications Director. In 2007 she was director of Public Safety Communication Management Services in Littleton, CO and provided training and consulting services for public safety.
Since retiring as the communications director from the Colorado State Patrol after a 25 year career, I've had plenty of time to reflect back on the many lessons I learned during my time in public safety communications. Some lessons were easily learned while the most difficult ones often centered on how to effectively deal with people. This was especially true after I was first promoted to communications supervisor. Back then, there wasn't any training offered that was specific to communications supervisors, and you all know how some dispatchers can come up with creative and unique issues to solve. In addition, due to budget constraints, most of the funding for training was reserved for uniformed personnel. Thankfully, that changed significantly as the years passsed.
To say I was not adequately prepared to be a supervisor would be an understatement. Like many other young, new supervisors, the fact that I thought I knew all there was to know about absolutely everything only compounded the situation. It wasn't until I was promoted up through the ranks and had grown up a little bit, that I came to the realization that I had made plenty of mistakes when I was newly promoted. If I were to list everything I learned over the years, it would have to be published in separate volumes. One thing is for certain: you can make a difference and it is my hope that you can benefit from the lessons I've learned in order to be the best supervisor you can be.
You Have the Power
In order for any communications center to be successful, it is absolutely vital to have an excellent first-line supervisory staff. Although upper management is responsible for overseeing operations, it is the communications supervisors who are the most critical level in the management hierarchy. The reason is very simple. You set the example for what is expected from communications personnel through your daily contact with them. By virtue of your position, you have a vast amount of responsibility and power. Your team looks to you to set the example, encourage, teach, reward, support and yes, even hold accountable. Both your team and your supervisors hold you to a higher standard and you have an obligation to achieve that standard. Remember, if your team shines, you shine, as they are a direct reflection of your abilities. Whether you realize it or not, your team will be watching you and imitating your actions. "Do as I say and not as I do" doesn't cut it.
The stakes are higher now. You wouldn't have been promoted if you hadn't already been setting an excellent example. Kind of scary, isn't it? If you accept and acknowledge the opportunities you have to make a positive impact on your center and then follow through, you will be an efficient, effective and well-respected supervisor. Just remember that you have the power to set the example to be followed by communications personnel.
All for One and One for All
As supervisors, we show commitment and reliability to our agency by being supportive and dependable. While we may not always agree with decisions made by our agencies, it is imperative that supervisors outwardly show support when communicating with our team members. What happens if we don't? It undermines the agency and creates fear, confusion and turmoil among personnel. Remember, you are on a different level now; you are not "one of the gang" anymore. There will be times when you have to take the unpopular stand, but it is imperative for all supervisors to display a unified front -- regardless of your personal beliefs. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job, but also one of the most important.
Being reliable means you fulfill your responsibilities to the best of your ability and are available when needed. If that means setting aside your paperwork to help in the center during periods of high activity or working the overtime that no one else will take, do it. And, of course, do so without fussing...at least out loud.
As supervisors we must also encourage our teams to demonstrate the same level of support, not only to our agency, but to each other. That means assisting others when needed and not waiting to be asked, helping and encouraging those in training and not participating in derogatory discussions about team members.
If you show commitment and support to your agency, chances are your team will do the same. While there will always be those few who won't, do it for the majority.
Be the Best You Can Be
What better way to set the example than to demonstrate top-notch skills? For those times when we have to counsel team members on performance issues, they will accept correction much easier when they know you meet or exceed expected standards of performance. While it is natural that our skills lessen if we don't routinely work a position, our skills shouldn't lessen to the degree that we're unable to perform up to the same expectations we place on our team. How can this be accomplished? Just like you schedule meetings, schedule yourself to work in the center. Take the most difficult work station. Be the first one to answer the phone. Exhibit a positive attitude and never demonstrate annoyance or irritation with citizens or public safety users (either on the phone/radio or after you hang up or end the radio transmission). Set the example by performing the dispatch functions as you want your team members to perform.
You Want Me To Do What?
Most people come to work every day with full intentions of doing a good job. But, if they don't know what is expected, how do they know how to do a good job? More importantly, how can we hold them accountable if they don't perform up to expectations? It is up to us to provide written policies, rules and procedures. Giving verbal instructions or directives just doesn't cut it. They also need to know what will happen if expectations are not met and then we must be consistent in applying our own rules. Expectations for both performance and conduct must be in place. Do you have an ace dispatcher who performs well above expectations but causes hate and discontent because he or she can't get along with anyone? Wouldn't you prefer to have a center full of dispatchers who simply meet standards and get along well rather than a room full of A+ dispatchers who fight the whole shift, or just as bad, give each other the silent treatment? Establishing a Code of Conduct is paramount to having an efficient center. Establish expectations, communicate results if not met and follow through.
You're a Supervisor and You're There to Help
The most important responsibility of being a supervisor is supervising personnel. Too often, other things interfere with this basic function of supervision such as special projects, never ending meetings, etc. It is common practice to load up communications supervisors with special tasks and you may have no choice in the matter. Sometimes management needs to be reminded that your first priority and responsibility is to the center and special projects may need to be assigned elsewhere, if possible. This is easier said than done, but you might be surprised by management's reaction when you recommend that priorities be adjusted for the good of the center.
Monitoring activity in the center doesn't mean hovering or hanging over a dispatcher's shoulder and watching his or her every move. It does mean being aware of what is going on in order to determine if a dispatcher needs assistance, is performing as expected or even needs a break. It's called MBWA (Management by Walking Around). Be diligent in knowing if the center if functioning in an efficient manner. Be aware. Be available.
It's a Dirty Job but Someone's Gotta Do It
Some supervisors absolutely hate paperwork; others despise coaching or counseling their people. What part of the job do you dislike and how do you avoid it? Some supervisors go out of their way to find things to do on their own to avoid supervising. They'll hole up in their offices doing schedules or other paperwork and the center is lucky to see them. Or, they'll wear ear plugs and blinders and pretend they didn't just hear that dispatcher be rude on the phone or see that dispatcher arrive late to work. If you don't handle performance issues, who will? Supervisors who avoid their basic responsibilities appear weak and ineffective. Worse than that, your team members will not respect you. Period.
When you are first promoted, it is natural to dread having to counsel employees which is made worse by the fact that not long before, you were peers. It's a difficult transition, isn't it? An important point to remember is counseling does not have to be confrontational or adversarial. By simply treating them respectfully, controlling your emotions and focusing on the issue at hand, counseling an employee can be very productive. Every effort should be made to end on a positive note to ensure when they walk out the door they still feel good about themselves, in spite of the faux pau they committed.
Mistakes are to be expected. After all, dispatchers (at least most of them) are human, too. If our goal is to provide excellent customer service, we must have good performers. To have good performers, we must coach and counsel. We owe it to them, our agency and the public.
How do you develop a cohesive team that is working towards the same goal? The same way a sports team does it -- by having routine team meetings. I can hear it now, "We don't have the staff to cover," "I'm too busy with other things," "She's delirious," or perhaps more harsh thoughts are going through your head. We cannot expect to nurture a group of people to work towards the same goals if we do not bring them together on a routine basis. The purpose of team meetings should not be to go down a laundry list of do's and don'ts. After all, expectations are already written, or should be in the process of being written. Focus on working together as a group to enhance the level of service provided by the center, identify and resolve any issues facing the center, or any number of things that would benefit from the participation of all team members. A variety of topics could be addressed:
- How do we improve the time it takes to answer the phone?
- How do we improve the training program for a higher success rate?
- What should we do about the increased use of sick leave?
- How do we improve our relations with public safety users of our center?
- As a team, what should be included in our own Code of Conduct?
The more you establish a collaborative atmosphere and involve dispatch personnel in the operation of your center, the more cooperation and ownership you will get.
Because I Said So!
Have you ever had a supervisor that walks around like Attila the Hun? Controlling the masses through either spoken or unspoken threats? The result is fear, contempt and lack of respect. Even worse, there is resistance to whatever Attila is trying to accomplish, be it good or bad. One of the most important lessons to learn is to treat your team members as professional equals with respect and courtesy; you will be much more successful in accomplishing whatever endeavor comes your way. Attila should be killed and left outside. Everyone knows you're the supervisor; you don't need to remind them. By the mere fact that you treat your team with respect and courtesy, are interested in them and make yourself available, they will willingly follow your lead.
What Aretha Wants
Just because you're a supervisor doesn't mean everyone will automatically respect you. As they say, you can't demand respect. If you're a good supervisor, you will command respect. Respect must be earned by conducting yourself professionally, treating others professionally, demonstrating good character, and being fair and consistent. It is difficult for employees to respect someone who engages in unacceptable behavior such as making derogatory remarks about the agency or other employees, talking "down" to people, showing favoritism or even suffering from mood swings. If you create a respectful and professional atmosphere, employees will respond accordingly.
Just Be Nice
Have you found that common courtesy is becoming a lost art, not only at work but in general society? The more courteous we are, the more we will get what we want, whether you're dealing with a store clerk or a dispatcher. Sometimes we lose sight that it's just as important to be courteous to our team members as it is to be courteous to our superiors. Showing courtesy is as easy as greeting your team as they arrive to work, asking how they are, saying "Please" and "Thank you," and bidding them farewell for the day. How many times have you witnessed a shift change when no one says a word to each other? Not a very welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, is it? You can set the tone by having an interaction with each member every day and by simply displaying basic common courtesy. Just watch as it rubs off and your team starts doing the exact same thing.
Do you ever feel like someone just isn't listening to you? Remember what it felt like and then fine-tune your own listening skills. Effective listening takes a lot of energy and practice. In a nutshell, the rules of being a good listener are the same whether you're in a counseling session or during idle conversation. It consists of demonstrating interest, giving your full attention, acknowledging you understand what is being said through body language or words (acknowledgement doesn't mean agreement) and not interrupting to give your own point of view.
When counseling, some supervisors do most of the talking when it should actually be the employee. A counseling session should consist of the supervisor briefly presenting the issue at hand (just the facts and no commentary) and the employee then giving his or her perspective, be it explaining, justifying or admitting fault. The employee will be much more accepting of your decision, whether in their favor or not, if he or she feels you have really listened and considered his or her viewpoint.
When a employee, or anyone for that matter, wants to talk to you about a topic you are not interested in, keep in mind that the topic is important to them, and more than that, they want to share it with you. Put everything else out of your mind, focus on them, show interest and give feedback such as, "That's very interesting, tell me more" or "It sounds like you really had a good time," etc.
What are the results of having good listening skills? Your team will see how much you care, know that you hear what they are saying, and feel like they can talk to you about anything and you will truly listen.
Just Do It
Henry Ford once said, "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." Think about it. How many people promise you the world, but never deliver? How many times has someone said, "I'll get back to you on that" and then you never hear from them again? If you say you are going to do something, then do it! But if you can't complete the task, do the right thing and tell the person the reason. Good supervisors will follow through and do what they say they will do.
Ya' Done Good
Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics once said, "There are two things people want more than sex and money...and that is recognition and praise." Recognition and praise are very important! Take every opportunity to acknowledge a job well done. It can be either formal or informal recognition. We handle critical incidents just about every day from pursuits to disturbances to natural disasters, so there are more than enough opportunities to present team members with high achievement awards, official commendations or whatever award process is used by your agency. If your agency does not have any official awards and commendations, make a difference and create some!
Recognizing employees doesn't have to be the result of a significant incident. We handle "routine" calls every day that dispatchers go above and beyond what may be expected. Sometimes it is enough just to say, "You handled that call extremely well," "You really maintained your composure," or even "Thank you for coming in at the last moment" -- whatever the circumstances may be. Just remember this basic rule: Praise in Public; Counsel in Private. Even those team members who shirk recognition by saying, "That's my job," will feel appreciated and valued. More importantly, they will remember what you said or did for them.
Go Forth and Prosper
Just think about the role we play in public safety. We're the first contact with the public; we gather and disseminate crucial information; and what we do or don't do has a huge impact on the safety of both the public and response personnel. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves, and our agencies, of the absolutely critical and vital role that each communications center plays in public safety. That's where you come in. You are the leader, the advocate and the cheerleader for communications. Awesome responsibility, isn't it? Will you make mistakes? Of course, but that's how we learn, grow and become better at anything we do. Just remember that you have the power, and if used correctly, you will make a difference in your center.