Walking a tightrope
Every organization has employees knows it all, feels stifled by protocols and procedures, and views feedback — no matter how mild or constructive — as an attack. Obviously, the latter employee type would present quite a challenge for any manager. But what does one do when an employee exhibits the traits of both types?
That's the dilemma facing managers of 911 communications centers, which are densely populated with Type A personalities. Several theories exist as to why Type As often dominate such centers. The most popular is that the nature of the job attracts such personalities.
“This field attracts those types of people because it's fast-paced and there's a lot of variety,” said Chris Fischer, executive director of the North East King County (Wash.) Regional Public Safety Communications Agency and the current president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “Typically, they are assertive — almost aggressive — are independent thinkers and are good decision-makers, usually, because they're not afraid to make a decision. All the traits we generally look for, Type A people have.”
Lisa Atkins, communications manager for the Irving (Texas) Police Department, agreed. “A lot of people like the adrenaline rush they get from working in such a fast-paced environment,” she said.
However, others believe that the reason so many Type A people populate 911 communications centers is because they possess the drive required to make it through the interview and training crucible. “It's like any profession,” said Eric Parry, police consultant for dispatching software vendor Priority Dispatch of Salt Lake City. “You get a broad range of people who apply. It's just that the Type As are able to adapt best to that environment, where other personality types might say, ‘This is too crazy for me; I'm going to go find another job.’”
The irony, according to Parry, is that the notion of the 911 communications center as a place where frenzy is the order of the day generally is a myth. The reality, he said, is that life in the typical center — “not a huge comm center where you're getting shootings and muggings and stuff like that on a regular basis” — is rather dull. “You have hours and hours and hours of routine boredom punctuated by minutes of panic when you do get the crazy call,” Parry said.
An environment in which there is considerable downtime actually works against the Type A person, Parry said. “You often have more stress-related problems in the communications centers that have the lower workloads,” he said. “Talk to the Type A call-takers, and they will tell you that they love it when it's busy. Idle hands have time to look around the room and find reasons to complain.”
Regardless of how the Type As got there, 911 communication center managers have to deal with them on a daily basis — and it's no easy task. The consensus among those interviewed is that it is akin to walking a tightrope.
The positive aspects of the Type A personality in a 911 environment are undeniable, according to Wanda McCarley, operations group manager for the Tarrant County 911 District in Fort Worth, Texas, and a past APCO president. “These are very driven people. … They're very dedicated and very committed and take ownership of that job,” McCarley said. “They want to get their teeth into it and get a grip on it.”
Jaci Fox, operations and quality assurance coordinator for the Medicine Hat (Alberta) Regional 911 center, agreed. “Type A people are self-directed and make decisions quickly,” she said, adding that they are very results-oriented.
They're also detail-oriented and competitive. Unfortunately for 911 center managers, the latter trait is a double-edged sword. One one hand, their intrinsic competitiveness leads Type As to strive constantly to be the best, whatever it takes. “No one likes to be on the team that pulls the lowest scores, but Type As are almost embarrassed about it,” Fox said. “No Type A wants to be unsuccessful.”
On the other hand, that competitive zeal can make Type As more difficult to manage, Atkins said. “They can get a little too full of themselves, a little too confident,” she said. “They all have an opinion, and they're all going to say their opinion.”
That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Fischer. “You [want to] surround yourself with smart people who will tell it like it is,” she said. “I know who these people are in my organization, and if I really want the truth about something I'll ask them, because they won't mince any words. Everybody needs those folks in their organization to keep us on the right path.”
But McCarley cautioned that such frankness can lead quickly to problems. She told of one dedicated yet highly opinionated employee who worked 911 calls “like a genius” but who would “go off in a flash” when she thought she was being treated unfairly. Another employee was an even bigger headache. “Everything we told her to do, she was going to do it her way to absolutely prove to us that we were wrong,” McCarley said.
In time, McCarley was able to turn both situations around. In the first instance, it took a few years, but the employee eventually learned to channel her assertiveness into more positive paths and eventually became a 911 supervisor herself. In the second case, McCarley one day forced the employee to listen to a call she had handled, an exercise that led to an attitude change. “She was forced to admit that she had told the caller that he was stupid for calling her with his problem,” McCarley said.
Indeed, regular feedback is one of the keys to effectively dealing with Type As or any 911 center employee. Equally important are effective communication of protocols and procedures — as well as the sanctions for violating them — and a system of accountability to ensure that everyone in the call center, but particularly Type As, stay on the straight and narrow.
The approach can be described metaphorically as giving call-takers and dispatchers enough rope to do their jobs effectively, but not so much that they end up hanging themselves with it, said Steve Rauter, executive director of the Western Will County (Ill.) Communications Center.
“It goes back to how we write the protocols and operational guidelines,” Rauter said. “We want them to be independent thinkers; we want them to be able to jiggle the system. In other words, the rule says this, but I really need to do that to help this person.”
All of this probably sounds elementary, in a slap yourself in the forehead and exclaim, “Why didn't I think of that?” sort of way. But the devil, as usual, is in the details. Recall that Type As, who take pride in their ability to think quickly and solve problems creatively, typically don't mind being told what to do — but they bristle at being told how to do it.
“Type A folks don't always like to follow the rules,” Fischer said, adding that they prefer guidelines and general direction, but they don't perform as well when they feel they're being micromanaged.
The problem often isn't the rules but how they are applied, according to Fox. “Type As are OK with rules as long as they are fair, and fair all the way around,” she said.
Steve Souder, the director of Fairfax County (Va.) 911, said Type As over the years have caused him a good deal of heartache, precisely because they don't react well to criticism. He described the experience as being analogous to the task of raising children.
“Supervising isn't rocket science,” Souder said. “It has a lot to do with what I call parenting qualities. If you raise the kid right, teach him right from wrong, praise him when he does good and scold him when he does bad — these are pretty fundamental skills that a parent brings to raising a child. And so it is with a supervisor who is dealing with a problem employee.”
Should supervisors find themselves in a position where the carrot-and-stick approach isn't working, Souder suggests appealing to the employee's innate sense of self-preservation. He said that the most effective technique he has found is to keep a file of 911 screw-ups that make headlines. When Souder finds someone who is “breaking bad and not playing within the boundaries,” he'll call them in for a chat. When that doesn't work, he has them listen to tapes from call-takers across the country who have become national news because of their mistakes.
“We simply ask them, ‘Do you want that to be you? Do you want to wake up in the morning and hear your own story being broadcast on CNN?’ That seems to have a very chilling effect on them, because it hits them at their very core — they take great pride in what they do.”
Regardless of the tactics used, establishing accountability is something that needs to be done for a communications center to operate at peak efficiency, said Scott Robinson, a communications operator with the Vaughan (Ontario) Fire and Rescue Service, who spoke on the topic at the APCO Canada Conference held last November in Ottawa. According to Robinson, when procedures are ignored, mistakes are made. He stressed that, while it is one of the most difficult things to do, ensuring people take responsibility for their actions is an effective way to see that procedures are followed.
“It's the best thing to do,” Robinson said. “Hold your people accountable, and your performance will be enhanced.”
However, accountability is a two-way street, McCarley said. “I believe every manager is accountable to the people they serve. You, as a manager, have to work just as hard on behalf of the people who depend on you as you expect them to work.”
Fox agreed, adding that supervisors not only have to be accountable, they have to be transparent.
“I can't tell you one thing and another person something else,” she said. “That breeds a lack of trust, and where there's no trust, there's no accountability.”
THE A LIST
A Type A personality is highly: