By John R. Brophy
The first quality of a great leader is to have followers.
That might be the most famous saying that goes without saying in the modern “all-for-all” work environment of emergency services dispatching.
The job is a working definition of the term “group effort.” Team dispatch hears from team public who needs team medical, team fire, or team law enforcement.
Teams, in particular how to build them, are like the weather in most private businesses or public service agencies: It’s talked about all the time, but few do much about it. True, some leaders just seem to be the natural catalyst that somehow cracks a group of staff members who refine into that elusive, unified, pro-active, single-minded organism of happy coworkers doing a good job and wanting to do better.
Fortunately, leaders in dispatching already have the solid foundation of any call center: communication. Unfortunately, too many leaders forget the most important half of communication when they become a supervisor—listening. Listening as actively as we talk develops a kind of team reflex that can make solving most workplace complications as quick and sure as your knee reflex at an annual physical exam. A joint response doesn’t mean a knee-jerk reaction by a leader. Just because you’re a supervisor who has pretty much seen it all doesn’t give you the right to be a know-it-all. The really great leaders who want trust and camaraderie to grow know they don’t know it all.
I recall to this day a quick thank-you note from a former boss who appreciated my support and pointed out how the workload smoothed out thanks to a member’s idea. I felt good that he made the gesture, but I felt great that he was comfortable enough to admit he didn’t have all the answers. It reinforced the interpersonal leadership and set up a communication line we could both trust.
Camaraderie might be in the DNA of any PSAP. But, assembling individuals with the same mission doing the same thing doesn’t mean they are growing organically into a team. That mutual purpose and shared responsibility must be cultivated and tended by the supervisor. Leaders who go out of their way to be approachable and genuinely accessible to their staff members’ concerns and ideas are not only promoting team work, but are creating a workplace atmosphere of connection and support.
Leaders tend to be quick critical thinkers who can be too quick to say something critical. You shouldn’t be surprised if an individual in the center, who might well feel on shaky ground by bringing up a problem, goes back into hiding or above the supervisor’s head. That is a team-building buster if there ever was one.
Top-quality teams are lead by top-flight listeners who don’t take it as an opportunity to multi-task, i.e., e-mailing, texting, or giving into whatever digital distraction is in your hand, on your lap, or on your mind at the moment. The occasional “uh-huh” or listening for breaks or pauses where you can jump in isn’t listening, either. You might not be saying so, but the visual cues you’re giving scream “I’m not listening” or at best make the discussion a nonverbal game of hide-and-seek. Many supervisors become so used to this “I’m here now, and now I’m not” that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Best rule of thumb: Wherever your eyes are, is where you are.
Teams evolve from groups where leaders make solid interpersonal relationships a high priority, are genuinely accessible to their staff members when they need it and not just when employee evaluations roll around, and generally approach everyone with a “glass half-full” attitude. Building teams isn’t some big secret code of the workplace that some bosses manage to divine. Bosses who lead the best teams have an ability to show consistently that any individual with any concern can come to them, and if at all possible, will be helped.
The fact is that when people know they can count on you, no matter how significant or insignificant their need might be—or seem to you to be—they will feel a sense of connection and support. That is more than a leader with followers: It’s a group that has become a team.