7 steps to improving your approachability as a paramedic chief

Knowing your personnel and being approachable will allow ideas and improvements to come from all members of the EMS organization


Approachability: a word often used in leadership and management circles, but rarely defined, at least to any degree of clarity in my mind. It means to be "capable of being approached; accessible: specifically, easy to meet or deal with [1]." In my experiences, people will approach me as a leader with their thoughts, ideas, opinions, likes and dislikes only after they:

  • Trust me with their thoughts, ideas, opinions.
  • Believe I will take care of their thoughts, ideas, opinions.
  • Believe that I'll do what I say by keeping my promises.

It's up to me as a coach, champion, mentor and leader to make the first move in creating and nurturing those sentiments among my personnel.

Suggestions for improving your approachability
If you are frustrated with not getting important information on a timely basis from your EMS personnel, it helps to suspect your own level of approachability. This may be in your blind spot. Ask someone you trust if they think you might put people off more than you know. Give them permission to be frank with you about it.

Try this online quiz: Are you a good boss? If your self-assessment leads you to believe you may have an approachability issue, try these seven steps. Like anything, practice makes perfect.

1. Invest time in getting to know your people.
One-on-one time with the boss, above and beyond the communication necessary for the job, helps build the feeling in the individual that you care about them as a person. And who among us couldn’t use some of that on a regular basis?

For starters, learn the names of their spouse or significant other and their children. Learn their birthdays and make it a point to give them a card when it rolls around. Learn why they got into EMS and if their reason for being in EMS has changed through their career.

2. People want to know you.
Getting to know each other is a two-way street. Share a story or two about yourself, especially those that show something about your character and integrity.

3. Display loyalty to the absent.
When you hear members of your team talking about one of their fellow team members "behind their back," put a stop to it immediately. If you let them talk about others who are not present, you’re fostering the idea that you’ll allow others to talk about them when they are not around. Extend this loyalty to personnel who might be out on injury leave, opted for early retirement or changed employers or careers.

4. Listen to understand, not to be understood.
Too often we can find ourselves listening while at the same time formulating our opinion about what we’re hearing or what our response will be. As good as our brain is, it doesn’t do those two things — listening and processing/responding — well simultaneously.

Also, be aware of distractions, like doing other things while people are talking to you. Nothing says, "I’m really not paying attention to what you’re saying," like answering a phone call or reading a text message while one of your team members is talking to you. In the words of my late mom, "That’s just plain rude."

5. Acknowledge ideas and suggestions.
Approachable leaders regularly receive and solicit ideas and suggestions from their colleagues and teams. It doesn’t take much, usually 10 words or less, such as, "I appreciate the heads up" or "Thank you, that update helped me" to show your appreciation.

Acknowledgement encourages further information and idea sharing. When you don’t respond to ideas, people are likely to consider you to be apathetic.After a while, they’ll stop talking to you.

6. Explain decisions to ignore input or recommendations.
Any time you ignore or don't implement an idea, especially the ones you solicited, explain your reasons to forgo the input or recommendations. Without that feedback, people develop their own narrative and it goes something like this, "The chief doesn’t want my input, so why did the chief ask?"

7. Understand communication styles and preferences.
Each of us has a different communication style and preference for how we communicate with co-workers and managers. As the leader, improve your approachability by making the extra effort to be gentle with team members and others who are easily intimidated. If you have some personnel that thrive on confrontation and are more likely to go toe-to-toe in their communication, then create those opportunities, but heated debates need to work toward a conclusion.

A case study
A real turning point in my career — in terms of my personal approachability — came when I read "It’s Your Ship" by U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) David Abrashoff’s. It helped me understand the adage, "People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

I implemented one of the Abrashoff's tools whenever I took over a new unit. It involved asking everyone in the unit — firefighters, officers, civilian employees alike — the following three questions during one-on-one interviews.

  1. What do you like about working in this unit?
  2. What don’t you like about working in this unit?
  3. If you had my job, what one thing would you change tomorrow?

Think that’s too big of a task to take on in your world? Abrashoff interviewed every one of the 300+ sailors and officers in his world, aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Benfold. In doing so, he and his people took the Benfold from worst to first in the entire U.S. Navy fleet (based on the Navy’s evaluations of performance and combat readiness).

After I completed the one-on-one interviews, I typed up all the responses without names and shared the responses with everyone in the unit. Then I made it my mission to do things daily as a leader that:

  • Would reinforce their responses to question #1 (likes).
  • Sought solutions for their responses to question #2 (dislikes).
  • Sought ways to make their responses to question #3 (changes) a reality.

Was it a lot of work? You bet. Was it worth it? You bet.

So, what are you doing to improve your approachability today?

Further reading
4 reasons why leaders should listen more. http://approachableleadership.com/listen-more/

Forensic Magazine. The Importance of Being an Approachable Manager. http://www.forensicmag.com/article/2013/12/importance-being-approachable-manager

Good Reads. It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/183392.It_s_Your_Ship

Unique Training & Development. Being an approachable leader. http://uniquedevelopment.com/blog/being-an-approachable-leader/

Reference
1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary On-line

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