Stepping Up: Bonding, Part 1

By Ron Hiraki

No matter what your rank or your position; you have people you lead, work with, or who lead you. Consider making an effort to bond with them. Getting to know the people you work with and count on can improve your professional and even your personal relationships. You may find that you will have some (OK, many) disagreements, and you may even find that you don’t like each other. However, you will have a better understanding of each other and will probably begin to see each other as people instead of subordinates, coworkers, or the boss. This can be done both on duty and off duty. Consider stepping up and opening the door for a better relationship. To do this you will have to overcome three barriers: (1) getting people together; (2) setting the stage for talking and getting to know each other; and (3) continuing an honest and respectful relationship, no matter what you learn.

There is no great revelation in the introduction, and those three barriers should be a “duh” to all of us. However, before we try to participate in some bonding, let’s look at some scenarios and observe how the participants (initiator, receiver, and facilitator or key participant) helped or hindered the bonding process.

Example #1: The Deputy Chief

The deputy chief is not known for having an outgoing personality and spends too much time in his office. The fire chief “suggested” that one of the deputy chief’s quarterly objectives should be to visit each station on each shift. This was doable, given the size of the fire department. Through the “grapevine,” many members knew the deputy chief would be visiting. One battalion chief talked to the members on that shift and told them that this was something everyone wanted and that, therefore, they should try to make the deputy chief’s visit pleasant so the deputy chief would feel welcomed and want to “drop in” again. The deputy chief visited only one- third of the stations on that shift. Members at the other stations on that shift felt ignored. A few even told the battalion chief that the “pep talk” was all for naught.  

Example #2: The Assistant Chief

Many members performed extra duties on shift. Many of those extra jobs had some prestige, were shared with other members, and included some special training and overtime work. One job did not. The work was important, but it was not work that people clamored to do. One firefighter did all the work alone for several years, did it consistently well, and never got any special training or overtime. An assistant chief wanted to recognize the firefighter for this extra work. The usual accolades had been given. As a personal gesture of appreciation, the assistant chief invited the firefighter to breakfast following one of his shifts. The assistant chief politely stated that accepting the invitation was not required and that overtime would not be paid. It was merely an invitation for breakfast to say thank you. The firefighter accepted. The breakfast and conversation lasted two hours. The firefighter used the entire two hours to tactfully complain to the assistant chief about many issues.

Example #3: The Captain

The captain worked with three firefighters who were preparing for the next promotional exam. The captain organized some practice tactical exercises, but wanted the firefighters to get some additional feedback. The captain called the training chief and explained the goal and work of these firefighters, and stated that some additional and feedback would be valuable. The captain said, “I would like to invite you to dinner at our station. “I hope you can stay after dinner and watch a few tactical exercises and give some feedback and advice.” The training chief enthusiastically accepted. The firefighters were very grateful to the training chief and the captain.

Example #4: The Lieutenant

The lieutenant worked with three firefighters whom the lieutenant respected and really liked. The members normally took a midmorning break for about 15 minutes. One shift, the lieutenant brought in a box of fancy cinnamon rolls for the morning break. Everyone enjoyed them. The firefighters thanked the lieutenant. The lieutenant told them a good cinnamon roll is “comfort food.” The lieutenant went on to ask, “What else can I or we do to make the job more comfortable for all of us?” The crew had a good discussion for another hour. Later that evening, the lieutenant overheard one of the firefighters talking on his phone and sarcastically say, “Yeah, the lieutenant brought us cinnamon rolls this morning, but we had to pay for them with a whole hour of touchy-feely talk.”

What We Do Matters

In each of these examples, think about the following:

  • Who was the initiator, receiver, and the facilitator or key participant?
  • Who harmed the “bonding” effort, and how?
  • Who helped the “bonding” effort, and how?

This is not a quiz with right or wrong answers. Your answers or thoughts may vary according to the size and culture of your fire department. Think of examples from your own fire department and how bonding was helped or hindered. Next month, we’ll discuss some responses to those questions and other issues related to bonding.

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as Assistant Chief of Employee Development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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