A Culture of Excellence - Setting the Bar

    April 25, 2011 5:16 PM by Christopher Brennan
    by: Christopher Brennan

    I have been reading Malcom Gladwell's book The Tipping Point (he is also the author of Blink seriously, go read that one right now) and one of the discussions he brings up is the age old Nature vs. Nurture debate.  The argument is basically are children more influenced by their genetics (nature) or their environment (nurture).  Turns out it's about a 50/50 proposition, however the nuture piece is often not what people would expect.

    In the studies Gladwell cites the nurturing environment that had the most impact on children was NOT their home life.  It didn't really matter if their parents (natural or adoptive) were smokers or not, if they were college graduates or semi-literate.  What matters in determining the qualities a person will hold is more influnced by their peer group (what are their friends doing) AND what the larger neighborhood they are in finds acceptable.  If it is acceptable for basic social systems to break down then people are more inclined to commit criminal acts.  If the peer group (a self-selecting second "family") thinks that smoking is cool then MORE individuals who want to be a part of that group will chose to smoke.  So, that brings us to the firehouse.

    What is the culture in your firehouse?  Where are you setting the bar? While we can talk about the "culture" of the fire service until we are blue in the face the reality is that "culture" is a very local thing.  Think about the statement "All politics is local," and it ties in.  People view ideas and trends through the prism of their individual culture.  That means that how receptive the men and women in your fire house are to fitness, training, wearing their seat belts, eating healthy, and a host of other factors that all impact firefighter injury and fatality rates ALL come back to the culture you are cultivating in your firehouse, as well as your department.

    If we want to change the rates of injuries and line of duty deaths we need to move the peer group culture toward wanting excellence.  How will you go about it?  That all depends on YOUR group culture.  Maybe you need to identify the firefighters on each shift that everyone looks up to (the informal leaders) and get them on board first.  Sometimes that means stepping outside the rank structure.  That can be difficult to do, but the fact is that just because someone is wearing a set of speaking trumpets on their collar does not mean they are the "go to" gal or guy for that topic.  Maybe the topic is a serious-enough one that it has to be mandated through policy - seat belt use for example.  It's worth considering though that Firefighters tend to be people who pride themselves on being self-sufficent, and knowing what is best for themselves (even if they don't).  Merely mandating something doesn't mean that the group will buy in. 

    If we want to develop a Culture of Excellence it is going to require leaders at every level to identify the right message and the right people to move the peer group opinion forward in THIER firehouse.  It requires us to know what we do well, what we don't do well, and why we are succeeding or failing.  You aren't going to develop that understanding with a survey or a ten minute conversation at the kitchen table.  Getting to understand a culture takes looking at the "Why" behind our group's actions and then delving deeper and deeper until we find those root causes. 


    Next time we will talk a bit more about HOW to set the bar to motivate change.  For now, go look at your peer group and see if you can identify who the "go to" guy or gal would be to implement your new Wellness-Fitness Inititive, your new Engine Company Operations class, or your Officer Development Program. 

    Cheers,
    Chris