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How is Yours Morale? by David Rhodes

 Morale in organizations swing from time to time, issue to issue or in some cases, contract to contract. I have witnessed and experienced these shifts over the past 30 years. If you ask a firefighter about his/her morale being low or bad they will be quick with a list of reasons. At the top of the list is often pay, followed by station conditions, to many needless EMS runs and so forth. When we are in these situations we really do blame these for our low morale. When we discuss it we even validate each other’s reasoning. The problem however is always more complex that what we cite.

Morale is different for each of us. We all have a different set of expectations and needs. There are always a few exceptions to the rule but generally most everyone has a need to belong to the group, to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and a need to feel that they make a difference and are very much appreciated. These are all things that touch the heart and spirit of a person and result in motivation to be or do even more. When we are cruising along in an environment that is healthy, rewarding and we feel as if we are a part of something good, we are generally happy at work. Even if the pay is not what we think it should be or the station is not in the best of shape we do not dwell on the negatives and steep ourselves into a dark abyss of doom and gloom.

On the other hand, if we don’t have trust that the “organization” has our best interest in mind, if we see examples of individuals being punished verses being disciplined, if we create separation with crazy payroll schemes then we create a toxic environment in which even the best natured members eventually throw in the towel and give up on the organization. In these organizations there is a lack of creativity, a lack of purpose and no sense of mission.

Once this happens additional rules are implemented to force compliance with management priorities because now all the things that used to just get done without policy are no longer embraced by the workers. The organizational morale equals cost to a large degree. An organization with good or high morale is focused on the work (mission) of the organization and not bogged down with all the things that could be better. Fire stations with crews that have good morale don’t have as many maintenance issues reported because they just “fix them” with whatever supplies are on hand or in many case they just go buy the part or talk to the hardware store guy a play to firefighter card. In some cases the parts are donated because most everyone loves their firefighters. In a low morale station little problems go unreported until they are big problems. Big problems cost big money and even though our firefighters are stuck living with leaky roofs, mold, pest, and so forth, in a way they feel they are just getting back at the organization. “It doesn’t matter. Why should I care, they don’t!”

If your morale is suffering think back to when it was “good” in your opinion. More than likely it wasn’t when you at your highest salary or at the newest station. It was when you felt you were a part of the team, you were making a difference and you were appreciated by those in charge. When you have that, those rats at the station, leaking pumps just become legendary back drops to the stories you tell about the “good ole days.” Your lack of pay is made up for by working part time or overtime. Not to say that this is good thing and that it shouldn’t be different but we are talking morale here.

Morale is your relationship with the organization just like your relationship with a friend or spouse. If you are in a good relationship you tend to overlook some of the little things that you might not really agree with or like but the good parts of the relationship outweigh the bad. Even if you can’t accept something in these good relationships it results in a short lived disagreement and there is always forgiveness. If the relationship is not good then you criticize the little differences and relive each mistake every time there is an opportunity. This continues to erode trust to the point of no trust and thus a bad relationship.

Morale is a difficult issue for an organization and we often hear leaders telling their members that morale is not their (the leaders) problem. “You make your own morale”, some will say. “I don’t think it’s that bad around here, firefighters just have a passion for complaining about everything.” There could be some truth to those statements but they should never be spoken by the leader. The leader sets the tone for the organization and if there is no empathy for those down in the dumps then the interpretation is that there is no hope for their concerns.

You can't order good morale and you can’t legislate it into existence. Morale is about relationships. We have to understand that one could have great morale in his/her small environment at a station but bad overall morale concerning the organization. The preverbal “morale committee” will typically only identify 100s of symptoms that are the result of the emotional disconnect and never really understand the underlying reasons. As leaders we do need to have our finger on the pulse to determine if there is good or bad morale (most everyone already knows without any validation). Once we know the answer to that, the solution to changing the organization is to show you care. This comes through your individual actions towards others, your overall decision making and your focus on mission. It has nothing to do with following a checklist or saying that you do any of the above. You can change morale without ever saying a word about it. Your actions speak much louder.

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Comment by Kevin Hunt on June 11, 2015 at 4:47pm

Great article Chief, and perfect timing.  Keep it up

Comment by Heath Smith on June 11, 2015 at 8:31am

Chief, Great post! I agree that morale starts at the top. Having leaders who are willing to stand up for their crews is the first step in building good morale. Too often we as firefighters forget the bigger picture of public service. We must always have a servants attitude despite the type of call or assistance needed. Many times what you and I may view as a needless call is someones worst day. Each individual reading this post needs to remember how proud we were the day we graduated the academy. Never loose that excitement and passion for the job. If we could maintain that in our day to day operations the term morale may never be spoken in a firehouse again.

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