9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Employee Engagement In The PSAP: Improving Retention Through Positive Work Environments

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2014
Written by J.R. Martin, police communications shift manager for the Phoenix Police Department. He has worked in public safety communications for 15 years as a 9-1-1 operator, police dispatcher, communications training officer (CTO) and supervisor.

A career in public safety communications can be as challenging as it is rewarding.  Telecommunicators are positioned to make a difference in their communities, but sacrifice a traditional nine-to-five lifestyle for that privilege.  They are stationed at a console, secluded from the outside world.  They are too often denied monetary bonuses, commissions or stock options as an incentive to deliver high performance.  Upward mobility can be stifled because they are civilians operating in a larger public safety organization and managed by sworn personnel.  Nevertheless, the dedicated professionals working in public safety communications are willing to endure it all for a median pay of $36,300 per year.

These occupational realities can have a cumulative effect on job satisfaction and enthusiasm for the nature of the work.  To mitigate these effects, strong and effective leadership should be applied through positive employee engagement.  Employee engagement is an enhanced connection between an employee, their work and the mission of the organization.  Consider the benefits employee engagement has to offer:

  • Engaged employees are two times as likely to stay in their jobs.  This has a direct impact on turnover rates, training costs and reducing the loss of institutional knowledge.
  • Engaged employees are two-and-a-half times more likely to feel like they can make a difference.
  • Engaged employees produce higher levels of customer satisfaction.
  • Engaged employees are more productive.
  • An engaged workforce has fewer formal grievances.
Employee engagement is founded upon the development of positive working relationships.  The manner in which you interact with your employees can mean the difference between fostering or damaging those relationships.  The level to which you are interested in their successes or challenges can shape how trust, respect and communication are fostered.  In this article, I will share eight leadership fundamentals designed to effectively engage your telecommunicators through positive relationship building.

Be Nice
An oft-cited quote from 19th century author Henry James states, "Three things in human life are important.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  And the third is to be kind."  If errors are made, we want employees to positively acknowledge the error, take steps to fix it and not repeat it.  If a 9-1-1 operator forgets to ask a crucial question during a medical call, or the dispatcher incorrectly states an officer's traffic stop location, take action - but be nice.

Admonishing employees in front of their peers, speaking disparagingly about them to others or acting exasperated during a feedback session generates resentment and defensiveness.  Employees may temporarily change their behavior, but only in spite of you.  When you are nice, their defenses come down, lines of communication open and learning is cultivated out of respect for your approach.

Exist to Build Up Your People
Be a pillar of support, not a wrecking ball.  People are intrinsically motivated by positive reinforcement and recognition.  Seeking out and reinforcing their good work will leave them with a sense of accomplishment and strengthen their respect and trust in your leadership.

Most of the time, sincere acknowledgement for a job well done will yield a higher return on employee performance than financial compensation ever could.  Take the time to send an encouraging message to that dispatcher who just worked a difficult call, even if their performance was not flawless.  Let them listen to their performance later on and they will likely point out their own deficiencies and be much harder on themselves than you would be.

Listen Vigorously
Purposefully listen to your employees.  Listening is essential to forming and sustaining relational bonds.  Listening shows employees you value them and stimulates their problem-solving abilities.  When your employees speak, information about their life emerges.  They may show an interest in a hobby, discuss their volunteer work or show concern for an ill family member.  You can use the information they share to engage them and bolster your working relationship.

Actively listening to complaints has its advantages also.  If complaints stop coming in, one of three things has occurred:  you have created an environment of fear, experience has taught your employees their complaints fall on deaf ears and will change nothing, or your PSAP is perfect - which is not possible.  If complaints are ignored, morale can be brought down, setting the stage for a hostile or unproductive work environment.  Use your listening skills to change the way you think about complaints; a complaint is an opportunity to effect change.

Be Interested in Them
Engaged leaders continuously put their people's interests ahead of their own and utilize positive and personal interaction as a means to connect with employees.  When you hire a new employee, take time to meet with them as soon as possible.  Construct a welcoming meeting designed to extract meaningful insight into their experience and expectations, granting you deeper insight into their knowledge, skills and abilities.  Your new employee may have a background in information technology, teaching or management.  These skill sets can be leveraged if you allow them to be.  Meeting in this manner also allows you to identify gaps in their experience or training which you can fill through individual development planning.  Engaging them early in the relationship communicates that you are interested in their success and that they matter to you and the PSAP.

Consider the Root Cause
Sometimes employees show a sudden or gradual change in behavior or performance.  When these problems arise, avoid dealing with the symptom and take time to identify the cause.  Every employee brings a unique life story, culture, value system, work ethic, education, religious belief and family dynamic.  These factors can impact how they do their jobs.  You can tell your telecommunicators to leave those influences at home, but that is not a realistic expectation.

When armed with an awareness of your employee's root issues, you can see things from their perspective.  Perspective can aid you in understanding why they do what they do, allowing you to formulate strategies to encourage a change in their behavior.

Empower Them
Engaged leaders create opportunities for their followers to flourish and develop without interfering with their ability to navigate toward a common goal.  Empower your telecommunicators by offering them leadership and managerial opportunities that will assist them in developing the skills necessary to move up in the organization.

Give your telecommunicators an additional duty and empower them to accomplish the job in a creative way.  Loosen the reins and trust your employees enough to allow them to try new things.  The level to which your employee will take risks and show initiative is based on what they saw happen to the last person who took a risk and showed initiative.  When empowerment is done correctly, it can provide employees with a heightened sense of effectiveness, innovation and job satisfaction.

Empowerment can also serve as a tool for employees to become less resistant to change because they become part of the decision making process.  Empowerment develops leadership skills, which expands the depth of your PSAPs leadership pipeline by creating a larger pool of employees to draw from who can more seamlessly step into vacated leadership positions.

Demonstrate the Standard
Authentic leadership is reflected in how well a leader adheres to their own standards.  People want to come to work and perform well for those who respect and follow the same rules to the same or higher standard they expect of others.  Rank may have its privileges, but the extent to which those privileges are exercised must be met with some degree of discretion.  Holding yourself to the same or higher standards than you hold your employees will prevent resentment borne out of a perceived double standard.  Set the standard and live by it, and your telecommunicators will be similarly engaged in their work environment.

Provide Purpose
PSAPs need a common goal or vision that provides employees with a sense of direction.  Research into the motivation of public sector workers has shown that public workers are attracted to public service because of the opportunity the work provides to make a difference.  Making a difference is the very essence of what telecommunicators do every day.  PSAPs commonly have a goal to achieve high standards of public service.  With this knowledge, PSAP leaders can instill and maintain a sense of purpose in their telecommunicators.  Reminding them of this noble goal will keep them on a consistent course.

We are not the private sector.  We are not police officers, firefighters or EMTs.  We are public safety communications professionals who possess our own unique set of challenges when it comes to leadership and employee engagement.  Our unique circumstances oblige us to seek new and innovative methods to keep our telecommunicators wanting to come to work and perform their very best for the sake of the job itself.

Taking leadership seriously in our field will allow us to take charge of our own identities and contribute to the larger public safety organization we work for.  Effective employee engagement is one aspect of leadership we can rely upon to keep our telecommunicators enthusiastic and satisfied in jobs that are critical to ensuring public safety.

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