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Lisa had been a telecommunicator for about 3 years when she hit a wall. Despite knowing her work was meaningful (she was saving lives, after all), she couldn’t shake the feeling she could be doing more with her life. Frequent overtime could’ve been a factor, but she and her family appreciated the larger paycheck. Her coworkers were sometimes a challenge to deal with, but, for the most part, she got along with everyone. Another consideration dawned on her.


Ever since she got out of training, Lisa never really knew if she was doing a good job. The few times she’d received feedback from her supervisor, it was negative. In one instance, it was constructive to know she’d made a mistake while creating the call, but the way the criticism was offered was pretty rough. The general feeling among employees at the center was, “You better not screw up, or you’ll get in trouble.” Fear permeated the organization. Gossip and the rumor mill was strong.

Exceptional leaders foster meaningful exchanges

Lisa’s experience is not unique. Little feedback, poor communication, and a lack of empathy seem to be the norm. And not just at the comm center. Such challenges persist in many organizations across a wide variety of industries. Leaders at exceptional workplaces, however, choose to use a better way. By exploring this better way of communicating feedback and adjusting our approach accordingly, we can insure that dedicated team members excel in a job they find challenging, yet deeply meaningful.


Regular feedback supports a better PSAP work environment

Giving team members regular feedback is essential for a number of reasons. It provides an opportunity for them to course-correct if they’re not doing so well. When dispensed weekly, it gives supervisors a perfect avenue for building rapport and trust, while offering the chance to catch employees doing something right. One director requires his supervisors to maintain a positive-to-negative feedback ratio of 3 to 1. This is much easier to do when giving feedback is built into the workweek.

Dispatchers and supervisors must be willing to have difficult conversations

The problem is, in most organizations, feedback doesn’t work. A glance at the stats tells the story: Only 36% of supervisors complete appraisals thoroughly and on time. In one recent survey, 55% of employees said their most recent performance review had been unfair or inaccurate, and one in four said they dread such evaluations more than anything else in their working lives. Part of the problem is caused by the supervisor’s inability or unwillingness to have difficult feedback discussions.


In addition to an inability or unwillingness to wade into difficult, yet necessary, feedback discussions, there’s the tone with which most feedback is dispensed. When an employee makes a mistake, the natural response is frustration—especially if the mistake reflects poorly on the agency or has the potential to put officer or citizen safety at risk. The traditional approach is to reprimand the employee in some way, in the hope that the punishment will be beneficial. By “teaching them a lesson,” hopefully they won’t do it again.


Approach feedback with compassion and curiosity

The research, however, says that a more compassionate response gets better results. First, compassion and curiosity increase employee loyalty and trust. Research has shown that feelings of warmth and positive relationships at work have a greater say over an employee’s loyalty than the size of his or her paycheck. Conversely, responding with anger or frustration erodes loyalty. If you embarrass or blame an employee too harshly, your reaction may end up coming around to haunt you. “Next time you need to rely on that employee, you may have lost some of the loyalty that was there before,” says Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take.

Build relationships of trust

We are especially sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders, and compassion increases our willingness to trust. Simply put, our brains respond more positively to bosses who have shown us empathy. Employee trust in turn improves performance.This is part of the reason why comm center leaders who prioritize building relationships with their people are able to inspire positive change more effectively than managers who do not. These exemplary leaders use even the most challenging moments of discussion to build the employee up, instead of tearing them down.

5 keys to successful feedback sessions at your PSAP

So what can you do if you discover that you could use a positive adjustment in the way you give feedback? The following five suggestions can help:

  1. Prepare for the exchange
    Jot down some questions that offer deeper introspection than defensive responses. Check your emotions, filters, and judgments about this person and/or situation. Do you need more information to proceed confidently?
  2. Defuse tension
    Almost no one likes receiving OR giving criticism. Using a kind tone, being attentive to body language and emotion, and putting your counterpart at ease can help prevent the defensiveness so often apparent during such exchanges.
  1. Put yourself in their shoes
    How would you respond to the same feedback? What would make this the most productive exchange, for both parties? We tend to lose touch of how it felt to experience similar challenges, unable to bridge the “empathy gap,” because we underestimate the difficulty of the challenge to the person who isn’t us.
  2. Limit distractions
    Close the office door. Put your phone away. Remember that how you handle this exchange can build or erode trust and loyalty. Everyone wants to feel heard, listened to and respected. Extending genuine curiosity and caring during the exchange can make a huge difference.
  3. Ask for feedback
    After the exchange, ask your counterpart if they have any further questions for you and whether they thought the feedback was valuable or productive. If you have the courage to ask for feedback after offering criticism or feedback of your own, be sure you are open to receiving.

Communicating feedback effectively and doing it often stimulates a culture of accountability while serving as the glue that holds a high-performing team together. With compassion and curiosity, comm center leaders can transform the most challenging discussions into opportunities for growth—on both sides of the table.

About the Author


Adam Timm is the president and co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher. Previously a 9-1-1 telecommunicator with the Los Angeles Police Dept. for over a decade, Adam now provides leadership and resilience training to PSAPs around the country.

His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now. Visit for more.

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