I was having a conversation with a firefighter the other day and he was expressing some frustrations he was having at work. They were easy issues to talk about and work through, but something came up that I have heard before. The Us vs. Them mentality or mindset. Us being the firefighters and officers on the line and Them being the chief officers or executive staff in your departments.
There are many things that can contribute to the Us vs. Them mindset or problem within a fire department. Lack of communication or transparency, micromanagement, disrespect up and down the chain, and just poor leadership and people skills in general. I am not here writing today to offer solutions to every single contributing factor, but I do want to talk about one thing in particular that I think is very important both up and down the chain of command that can help alleviate some of this problem. It is to simply assume positive intent.
I am far from a pioneer in anything and this little phrase doesn’t belong to me. It was passed down to one of my mentors, a Fire Chief that I look up to quite a bit, and he mentioned it to me. Let’s elaborate. I want to start by speaking to the firefighters and officers on the line. If you are in this position you have to assume positive intent in your leadership. Decisions are going to be made in headquarters that you and I will not always agree with and that’s normal. You should assume positive intent in the people that made those decisions. I was a young firefighter not too long ago and many of the officers that were on the line then are now in staff positions. I knew them as company officers and saw how they were. I saw how most interacted with their people and how they made good decisions. I have to assume positive intent and know that they are not upstairs finding ways to make my life miserable. Or to make the lives of other officers and firefighters miserable. Now, let’s sprinkle a dose of reality in here. Are there members in our ranks that abuse their authority and do nothing positive with that authority? Of course there are, and they should be called out, but by and large, I really believe that they are the minority (can you see I’m an optimist). If you are a company officer you should consider embracing this way of thinking. You are the middle management. You are the one who helps download and digest the messages coming from your executive staff. You have to help your firefighters understand policy, procedure, orders etc. It is important for you to encourage them to assume positive intent. The flip side of this is to be an advocate for your people and step in for them when you truly know that there isn’t this intent. I think it’s safe to assume the right intent first, and deal with it second if we are wrong.
Onto Them, the Chief Officers. I am not a chief and don’t want to speak on their behalf. What I will say as a Captain to other chiefs out there is you all have to assume positive intent in your officers and firefighters. As I mentioned above, by and large decisions are being made on the line without any ill will or malicious intent. Most firefighters want to come to work and do their jobs well. Yes, there are those out there that cause issues and conflict. I get that that, and they should be dealt with and held accountable. I know you all don’t want the Us vs. Them problem either. It makes it harder to do your jobs and build trust down the chain of command. If you approach a problem on the line, please assume positive intent first. This will lead to more open communication, better dialogue, and realistic solutions if there are any problems. If you come crashing down without trying to understand the intent behind things, you will lose trust and contribute to that divide that we all don’t want. “Can you believe the way that Chief Jones spoke to me? I do a good job here every day and this is what they think of me and my decisions. Did you see how quick he was to jump down my throat without having the whole story?” See where I am going with this?
Assuming positive intent is important. This can work in other areas as well, especially when it comes to simple supervision in the firehouse. As a boss, assume positive intent in your firefighters and as a firefighter, assume positive intent in the decisions your boss makes. If we all took this approach, we could crush the Us vs. Them problem that will only break down the cohesion we need up and down our chain of command.
Thank you Chief Dennis Doan for this important lesson in not only leadership, but followership as well.