Far too often, leaders in 9-1-1 centers are becoming overly defensive with — and disconnected from — their people.
Make no mistake – there are many absolutely heroic leaders out there doing incredible things in their comm centers (I’m fortunate to know several of them). Forward-thinking leaders who are putting their people first and using feedback to make amazing improvements.
There are also, unfortunately, leaders who are the obstacle to progress in their centers – and they’re seldom willing (or able) to see or admit it.
This tends to happen because they’re digging in and defending when they should be listening and acting on what they hear. They are becoming closed to feedback when openness is required for any real change to occur.
This problem will only get better when these leaders become truly introspective – when they listen to and accept difficult feedback, without feeling attacked or threatened. So often, difficult truths are the building blocks to real, measurable improvement across the board. But when faced with the truth, these leaders become defensive, creating a parallel narrative that completely opposes the experience of those on the dispatch floor.
Instinctually, we ALL tend to revert to a defensive stance when our identities (work or otherwise) are questioned – it’s human nature to do so. But you must forfeit that mindset once you’ve accepted a leadership position.
It’s no longer about putting yourself first.
Defensively refusing to engage in meaningful, productive interactions completely hamstrings the ability to lead. It also demonstrates an unwillingness (or, worse yet, an inability) to truly listen without feeling threatened – a trait that the best and most successful leaders share.
Why is this a big deal? Because it creates oppositional forces for which there is no achievable middle ground. Line-level staff see departmental issues around them in real time, and they are desperate to provide feedback on how to fix them.
Don’t believe me? Visit ANY comm center and get together with a few of the folks doing the work. Ask them what is wrong in the center and how they think it could be addressed. What you’ll likely find is consensus on problems and solutions to fixing them. To be clear, I’m not talking about those 2 or 3 folks convinced that everything is awful, always — there is no consensus to be found with them. But don’t make the mistake of conflating the bitter worldview of this vocal minority with the much more constructive majority who stand ready to help right the ship.
Employee-driven solutions will likely veer from the comfort of “what we’ve always done.” Many leaders talk a mean game about embracing new ideas, but the discomfort that accompanies new thinking often sends them scurrying to “We’ll think about it” or “That’s a good idea, let’s have you form a committee.” These statements, when spoken by leaders who are slow to action, are key indicators that good ideas are preparing to die a slow death.
The heroic leaders I mentioned earlier? You can be heroic, too, by trying a bit of the following:
- Find a way to step outside yourself. Get introspective. Put your need to defend aside. Open yourself up to both new ideas AND criticism. It will hurt your pride and you might not like what you hear. Too bad. It’s what you signed up for. You can take it. Real solutions lie within.
- Put your people to work on solutions. It won’t take them long. They’re out there on the floor right now coming up with amazing ideas. They just need to you to actually listen to them and act on what they come up with.
- Meet with your people. Often and with purpose. Meetings for the sake of meetings are about as valuable as Monopoly money, so make sure when you meet you do so with real, measurable action as your goal. Every time.
- Finally, embody the mindset of Springfield-Greene County (Mo) 9-1-1 Training Manager Heather Morrison, who lives by this credo: “My first answer to any idea is always yes.” Retrain yourself to follow Heather’s motto and open the door to positive change.
We all get stuck sometimes. We cling to ideas or feelings that aren’t helpful. We dig in and defend.
But if you are a leader in a 9-1-1 center who isn’t empowering your people and finding solutions alongside them, it’s past time for you to embrace feedback outside your comfort zone. Embrace it AND put it to real use. If you can’t, maybe it’s time to move on and give someone else a chance in the big chair.
Today is a GREAT day for you to start.
About Kris Inman:
Kris Inman is the Director of Program Development for The Healthy Dispatcher. A 28-year veteran of 9-1-1, Kris retired in July 2023 as Director of Springfield Greene County 9-1-1 in Springfield, MO. An awarded speaker and instructor, Kris has delivered standout educational sessions, keynotes, motivational talks and yoga instruction to dispatchers across the country. He is also a long-time college adjunct instructor, teaching courses in communication and public safety leadership. Kris holds a Master of Arts in Communication and a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Media from Missouri State University. He is also a registered yoga instructor.