Long-term culture changes occur when People Driven Leaders commit to new standards of excellence not just once, but every day.
When I ask a manager what they see as their center’s biggest challenge—the one thing that, if it were to change, would make the biggest difference on the center’s day-to-day operations—I often hear, “The culture. If we could improve the culture, then we’d be in a much better place.”
It’s true that a positive culture will produce better results, and improving a center’s culture is a major key to its success. But the question many leaders forget to ask themselves is, “How are we going to do that?”
This question is important, because changing a center’s culture is a unique challenge. It isn’t a problem with simple solutions, like fixing tardiness, that can be discussed, documented, remediated, and reviewed. Culture is the sum of many different variables, some complicated, some simple, and all of them important.
That doesn’t mean a center’s culture can’t change. It just means we need to be ready to address it at its root, and not be tempted by any short-term fixes. A negative culture takes years to develop. Anything that takes time to establish also takes time to change.
Here’s how People Driven Leaders make their center’s culture work for them every day:
#1) Work with and within your current culture.
Don’t think of changing culture as throwing the current ways out the door and starting fresh; think of it as carefully analyzing which elements of the current culture inhibit success, and which ones encourage success.
For example, I often hear from centers that team members feel particularly supported by each other during urgent, life-threatening emergency situations. One center decided to use the way the team would come together during emergencies as a model for how they’d like to behave during daily non-emergency operations.
They asked themselves, “How can we cultivate this level of camaraderie every single day?” By talking about the behaviors they’d like to see more of, versus those they wanted to see less of, and holding each other accountable for behaving in the new way, the culture began to shift.
#2) Change behaviors, and mindsets will follow.
Many leadership teams like to believe that behavior follows mindset. They do some mandatory work regarding core values, post these new values on the wall, and call it a day.
But what they don’t realize is that values can mean different things to different people. Old habits die hard. In short, real change requires real effort.
It wasn’t until leaders put real effort behind their change initiatives that the culture at one Southwestern center began to improve. Instead of hanging vague and subjective posters, they translated their new values statement into clearly defined “in-bounds” and “out-of-bounds” behavior. In order to practice these new standards, they also implemented new practices for interpersonal communication. Each member of the team was therefore empowered to take responsibility for their part in their center’s culture change.
#3) Focus on a few critical behaviors.
Jumping into change headfirst, hoping to change everything all at once, is a surefire way for your culture change efforts to fail. Instead, focus on changing just a critical few behaviors at a time. Translate them into simple, practical steps that people can take every day.
One comm center did this by focusing on the way supervisors communicated with employees, changing how disciplinary action was handled, and creating consistency across the supervisory team. Instead of telling employees what they did wrong, supervisors began having coaching conversations.
This center also adapted their discipline policies. Previously, supervisors had a tendency to play “whack-a-mole,” writing people up for small things and big things alike. To change this, they began asking questions and engaging people, using formal discipline only as a last resort.
By focusing on just a few critical behaviors at a time, this center was able to address the root of their challenges and successfully change their culture for the long term.
#4) Link behaviors to center goals and objectives.
When people talk about feelings, motivations and values, the conversation often veers into the abstract. Many employees leave culture-focused meetings wondering how the advice they just got actually translates into the work they do every day.
To avoid such a disconnect, offer tangible examples of how cultural interventions lead to clear results.
For example, the team at one southern dispatch center decided to use new methods to improve their 50% trainee success rate. Previously, CTOs would meet with their trainees once a month. But after 30 days, the trainee’s bad habits were often already firmly entrenched, making corrective action more difficult.
To fix this, the Director, Training Coordinator and CTOs decided to place the responsibility for the trainee’s success directly with the CTO. This new responsibility forced the CTOs to change the way they thought about their role as instructors. They decided that they needed to meet with their trainees more frequently and take the time to coach and guide them through the process. Within a year, trainee success had increased to 80%.
#5) Actively manage your cultural situation over time.
Change doesn’t happen all at once, and one big effort isn’t enough to ensure improvements remain long-term. Centers that maintain a positive culture actively monitor, manage, care for, and update their cultural forces. If your center doesn’t do this regularly, impressive gains can be lost when a key employee departs the organization.
In 2005, one Western comm center reported a 1% turnover rate after six years of trying different methods to improve the organization. By 2018, their turnover rate had returned to the 20%+ rate they had before. This was because when the managers who oversaw the pre-2005 change initiative left the organization, the knowledge also left. With no one to guide the culture and the initiatives that led to its evolution, things returned to thedefault state.
Changing your culture is an evolution, not a revolution, and high-performing centers are never done improving. Long-term culture changes occur when People Driven Leaders commit to new standards of excellence not just once, but every day.
Thanks for reading this article, containing excerpts of my upcoming book, “People Driven Leadership: How the Best 9-1-1 Centers Inspire Positive Change.”
This is the twelfth article of 20. Stay tuned for the next!
“People Driven Leadership: How the Best 9-1-1 Centers Inspire Positive Change” will be available on April 13, 2020, the beginning of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. For more details, visit The Healthy Dispatcher website.