Have you ever had a conversation with someone whose outlook or attitude was so crappy about the topic that it exhausted you just listening to them? As leaders, we are often tasked with realigning people's perspective and/or performance to the expectations of the organization. Accomplishing this typically involves having to have "hard" conversations with people whose values and interest about the fire service may not resemble much of our own. This becomes especially true if the standard you are aspiring to is in the minority of the group or culture they work in; more simply put, it's much harder when their complacency is supported amongst the team.
I've struggled throughout the years to understand how someone could have such a poor attitude about a job that is so easy to love? But nevertheless, every year organizations including the fire service find only about 33% of their members are actively engaged in the job (Gallup Polling). What's even worse, another third of our organizations have members considered "actively disengaged"--which means they are actively working against the grain and health of the culture. It's not hard to figure out who is who, just spend ten minutes listening to the conversation at the firehouse kitchen table.
When I was a new fire officer I came face to face with such an attitude. Unfortunately, my best intentions of having a conversation to motivate the employee to care more, do more, and be more ended up alienating him from wanting any of those things. No matter what option or help I presented the employee, they refused to acknowledge that they could change their mind about how they felt. But in looking back, I could have done a lot of things better for him--I could have been better.
So what would I do differently?
It starts with creating a healthier culture. This involves focusing on what's going right more than what's not. It's not about turning a blind eye to unhealthy actions, but it's understanding that health or lasting change don't appear overnight. You can't decide someone needs to lose 20 lbs and be mad at them when they show up the next day at the same weight. Jocko calls this sacrificing the short term with an eye towards the bigger picture. Great leaders seem to have figured out how to balance patience for mistakes without sacrificing pursuing better. I tried to create too much change and forward momentum too soon and without building relationships for buy-in, and for the majority of the group it was overwhelming.
What are the benefits of creating a healthy culture?
Leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni offers that "People in a healthy organization, beginning with their leaders, learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion getting in their way, they cycle through problems and rally around solutions much faster than their dysfunctional and political rivals do. Moreover, they create environments in which employees do the same" (2012, The Advantage).
It's not hard to picture what healthy could look like in your organization. When you show up to work do you have strong senior members mentoring and coaching newer hires? As a supervisor, do you spend your time dreaming of things that would be challenging and fun to pursue for your shift, such as training in acquired structures? Or do you cringe while driving to work wondering if anyone will bother to actually check the truck out without you having to ask, followed by situations in which you as the supervisor have to supply 100% of the motivation to get stuff done?
The thing about healthy organizations is that health begets more health. It happens this way because our culture passes down the expectations from the generation of one worker to the next. The junior member is learning while he's mentored by the senior guy, that one day he'll be expected to the do the same. If you are wondering how healthy your team or organization is, spend five minutes at the kitchen table at shift change, and see what kind of things dominate the talk over coffee.
Every organization has a heartbeat. Regardless of your position in your agency, each day you show up to work and choose to be a pacemaker, generating activity on your team that will benefit the community you serve, the people you work with, and the organization you belong to. Consistent and intentional actions that reflect the core value of service to others move teams and organizations forward. Healthy teams and organizations have an inherent ability to resist the viruses of selfish, complacent, and unmotivated people. Time to go do work.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Lieutenant with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. Benjamin has written leadership articles for Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife.
Benjamin has worked extensively for years with the Virginia Fire Officer Academy and is also a founding member of the Metro Richmond Public Safety Academy. He has a Bachelor’s in Fire Science and a Master’s in Public Administration. He is currently working on his Doctor of Education in Learning and Leadership with a concentration in organizational psychology. Benjamin is also the owner and operator of the leadership training featured at www.EmbraceTheResistance.com.
If you are interested in learning more, I talk about many of the lessons learned in my FDIC class, Intoxicated Leadership: Thinking strategically vs. reacting emotionally. More information can be found on my website, www.EmbraceTheResistance.com.