7 effective communication steps for EMS leaders

Whether implementing a major initiative or making small policy shifts, two-way communication with every level of the organization is critical


By Chip Sovick

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words in 1963, but they are as appropriate for the world we live in today as they were then. They ring especially true for those of us working in health care, and more specifically prehospital care. To survive the fast-paced world of EMS, we must have the ability not only to adapt to change, but to embrace it. We must also learn to be good stewards of diminishing resources to move organizations toward the future.

Once members of the organization fully grasp the vision and plan to achieve that vision, they can work together more efficiently and effectively to implement it. (Photo/FEMA)
Once members of the organization fully grasp the vision and plan to achieve that vision, they can work together more efficiently and effectively to implement it. (Photo/FEMA)

But progressive change is not easy, and it requires that leaders prepare their teams by relaying a clear understanding of the future vision of the organization. This vision must be clearly defined and relayed to the team via a well thought-out process that includes multiple opportunities for members of the organization — whether they are volunteers or employees, clinical or administrative staff — to ask questions and provide input. Once members of the organization fully grasp the vision and plan to achieve that vision, they can work together more efficiently and effectively to implement it.

All major changes in an EMS organization — from downsizing to shifting schedules to changing deployment strategies — require the same thoughtful approach to implementing a plan and communicating about it as well. The following steps should be included when announcing and executing any significant changes.

1. Start with a detailed written plan

Begin with a clearly written plan to communicate the vision and reason for change. The plan should detail the various audiences you need to address, the specific messages for those defined groups or individuals and a timeline for all communications. The messages should outline the need for change and how it can positively impact the organization and the workplace moving forward.

2. Positive, regular communication

Engage team members on a daily basis in casual conversation to reinforce the message and build trust. This will also allow you to get feedback from the team to allow you to adjust the message as needed. It is vital that these conversations remain upbeat to instill confidence that the impending change will be both positive and productive.

3. Transparency reduces change anxiety

Being transparent and honest with team members at all times is critical as a leader — especially during a period of major change. They must have the opportunity to ask questions and get them answered to better understand the vision and reduce their anxiety related to the change process.

4. Ask for and answer questions

Frequent communication with team members allows you to reinforce your message in multiple formats to both repeat the message and ensure it is understood at all levels of the organization. Furthermore, it allows more opportunity for feedback and opportunity to answer questions if done correctly.

5. Consistency improves buy-in

The importance of a consistent message cannot be understated. A common message needs to be consistent among all levels of the organization to gain the buy-in needed to successfully implement change.

6. Over-communicate change messages

Repeat the message to every member of the team whenever you have the opportunity. It is nearly impossible to over-communicate a message of change.

7. Make adjustments

Be flexible and listen to feedback from your team. They will let you know how you need to adjust your message to improve communication of leadership’s vision. If what you’re doing isn’t working, consider why — is it the message itself? Or how it’s being delivered?

Plan is adaptable

In one organization we work with, leaders decided to implement a workforce reduction plan to more closely align resources with a decreasing number of transports. We knew that a decision of this magnitude would raise serious concerns among employees throughout the entire organization. Leadership needed to reinforce to the caregivers and other staff that the organization was stable and the decision to downsize would ensure long-term survivability.

Following the communication steps outlined above assisted us in explaining to team members why we made our decision. Ultimately, the team embraced the need to right-size and quickly led them to understand that the organization is much healthier as a result.    

This approach to communicating change can be used on a smaller scale as well. While the plan and execution of the communications may be less formalized, mid-level managers and field supervisors should consider these same steps when communicating changes to their teams, from new shift assignments to updated medical protocols.

When implementing changes, talk to your team — even if the conversations are challenging, you will be glad you did. In the long-run, communication about decisions builds a more cohesive working group and leads to higher satisfaction among members of the organization.

About the author
Chip Sovick, a senior associate with Fitch & Associates, has more than 25 years in the health care industry. He served as president and CEO of a large multi-state air and ground critical care transport network for more than two decades. Previously, he held a leadership position for a progressive county EMS agency. He lives in Charleston, W.Va.

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