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The culture of negativity within an organization is, and will continue to be its demise if each member of the organization does not take ownership to influence (Lead) a more positive and optimistic work environment.

Over my 36 year career in the fire service, I noticed an underlying common thread of negativity that seemed to appear frequently regardless of the topic at hand. This seemed to be a common trend among other departments I was acquainted with. You may be familiar with the saying from one fire department to the next, “same problems, different players.” This implies we have more in common than not, which leads me to believe other departments experience this negative vibe.

I’m not sure if this negativity is caused by normal human behavior to take the path of least resistance, by a minority of individuals who just like to complain, or by a combination of factors. We are all guilty of complaining from time to time. The fact is it’s easier to complain than to do something about your complaint, because the latter takes effort.

For example, you are the officer and a crew member brings you a nagging organizational complaint. You recommend they put the issue in writing with reasonable solutions to send up the chain of command in order to create a possible change, and they drop the issue. It was easier for them to complain rather than to do something to address their issue.

I remember working alongside a colleague who liked to use vulgar language. Before long, I realized he was negatively influencing me as I noticed I was speaking with more vulgar language. Doing the right thing takes work. In essence, we give our individual power away when we are negatively influenced by others or by circumstances.

I’m not sure about you, but for me, it gets really old listening to people complain day in and day out, for no apparent reason. Ordinarily, we can control our environment by remaining positive and ignoring complaints or by doing something constructive to be heard in order to resolve our complaint, and perhaps to affect positive change. Complaining for the sake of complaining and offering no reasonable solutions is simply a waste of time and annoying to others.

Most of us can likely identify an individual in our workplace or organization that fits the mold of a complainer. They are often recognized in conversation with the words, “That’s just so and so.” They may be allowed to sound off daily because a supervisor may not be “present” to notice the negative influence or potential influence they have on others, or perhaps is ignoring the behavior.

If peers allow the complainer to sound off without opposition, it further enables the complainer. If allowed to go unchecked, this person will eventually start to affect the behavior and emotions of others on the team, which can lead to conflict. The complainer is like a spreading cancer. At its worst, the other members of the team will be influenced to be just as negative. In time, this becomes your work environment, which then becomes the organization’s culture if not effectively addressed. This is how a culture of negativity begins.

The members of the organization define and create the organizational culture over time, by what is and what is not accepted. Culture is not changed overnight, but takes time to influence positively or negatively. Creating the culture begins with each individual contributor and the organization’s leadership to lead with positive influence. Supervisors and peers can eliminate the complaining by not tolerating it. They can influence change in situations they can control by helping to identify the problem and offering realistic solutions. The chronic complainer can be supported through coaching, counseling, and Employee Aid Program services to better understand why they complain or what the payoff is for them, and to provide tools to stop complaining.

The fire service profession brings a tremendous amount of stress to the lives of its members, to the extent that it can have long term effects on our health and wellbeing, and can reduce our life span. Working in a negative work environment only adds to this stress. We all want to be happy in our workplace. Happy employees tend to work harder and better. We also want to be happy at home when we are with loved ones.

Being a firefighter is one of the greatest jobs in the world, maybe the greatest. Time and time again firefighters prove there is almost nothing they can’t accomplish together. So the next time you want to complain or hear someone complaining assert your leadership influences to do your part to enroll others into creating a culture of positivity we can all be proud of. Life is too short, so if you’re that unhappy, do something about it or go find another place to work.

NICK J. SALAMEH is a retired Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years of his more than 36 years in the fire service. He served as chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, and Stop Believing Start Knowing,

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