Managing Type As in a 911 center requires a deft hand
Wanda McCarley, operations group manager for the Tarrant County 911 District in Fort Worth, Texas, and a past APCO president, once found herself dealing with a 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.
The behavior of these employees is typical of that demonstrated by Type A personalities, the predominant type in 911 communications centers. 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 hear-tache, 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.”
See the February print edition of Urgent Communications for an expanded article on this topic.