By Frank L. Frievalt
This article is the third of a four-part series based on “Directives on My Watch,” originally published in Fire Engineering to provide additional explanation and background of the directives, organized around Organizational, Operational, Personnel, and Public Trust matters.
Reward Good Performance in Meaningful Ways
There was a time when the chief’s nod, a certificate, or a plaque was a sufficient form of reward; we rewarded others in forms that held value for ourselves. In his book Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, bestselling author Wes Roberts, Ph.D, advised, “Never give a Hun a reward that holds no value for yourself.” That was sound thinking when he wrote it in 1985. However, nearly three decades later, we’re dealing with a different workforce made up of segments like Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millennials. These generations have a different set of things they value than we (the current “old guard”) do. Consequently, they don’t always appreciate our forms of reward; it’s not about disrespect—it’s about disconnect—on our end.
The much discussed “new norm” in the fire service involves more than new financial strategies; it also involves new workforce management strategies. This is especially true for the bulk of the fire service that must rely on volunteer and part-time personnel, where financial incentive strategies are rarely an option. Where you can, give people choices on the kinds of rewards they can receive if there is a monetary resource. If the reward is praise-based, do you know how that person would most appreciate the praise (e.g., before peers, in confidence, in writing, and so on)? To know the answer is to know your people, and that is a good thing. It means you’re engaged in who they are, not just what they do, which is intrinsic to any meaningful reward.
Investigate, Investigate, Investigate
Personnel problems usually are settled by one of two group conflicts: people vs. people and people vs. the organization. These in turn usually also settle out into two types of conflict: conflicts of perception (i.e., I thought “this,” you thought “that,” and you are wrong) and conflicts of fact (i.e., you did “this”; no, I did not). Once a personnel problem gets established enough to require administrative intervention, people generally start thinking “defense.” Good defense involves generous use of at least three strategies: omission, marginalization, and time-travel. Omission is about selective amnesia of information that weakens the involved party’s argument. If confronted with proof of the omitted information, the “I forgot about that” maneuver gets it on the table with minimal consequence (the first time) to the “forgot-ee.” If the “weakening” information was clearly known to the person and can’t plausibly be omitted, then marginalization is applied (i.e., “Yes, that’s an inconvenient fact, but here’s why it’s unimportant or irrelevant in this situation…”). And last, what I like to call “time-travel”; this is where discovered omitted and marginalized facts are placed out of chronological sequence (time-travel) to the benefit of a person’s argument (i.e., “This happened before/after that, which is why it is important/unimportant).
The simple truth is that you will never have sufficient time to fully investigate every personnel problem. Therefore, invest heavily on the first one to three personnel problems you are tasked with resolving. Make it clear that you are fully capable and highly motivated to get to “ground zero” of a conflict, and that you’ll go where the facts lead. And finally, as a captain or a lieutenant, you tend to get the pertinent information sooner than if you were a chief officer. Don’t take it personally; but the first day you wear white is the last day you get unfiltered information. You and I filtered what we shared with our chiefs, except that they’ll do the same to you. You will never get all of this sorted out in one round. So, investigate, investigate, investigate.
Look People in the Eye When Delivering Corrective or Punitive Discipline
If you don’t have the confidence to do this, you probably have some responsibility for their poor performance.
I define corrective discipline as counseling, verbal and written reprimands, and punitive discipline as suspension, demotion, termination. We’ve figured out that face-to-face communication on the fireground is always better than “mobile-me-to-mobile-you” for critical and complex exchanges. Similarly, disciplinary matters are critical and complex, and deserve face-to-face communication.
Disciplinary actions are uncomfortable, and they should be; avoiding the discomfort of personally administering discipline infers uncertainty of your decision and weakness in your resolve to lead. If you’ve ever been properly disciplined (I certainly have), you respect it even if you don’t like it because it has that ring of irrefutable truth. Deep down, we realize that if our poor performance or behavior is tolerated in the department, which necessarily impacts others, then the tolerance of poor performance or behavior by others in the department will eventually impact us. New officers frequently avoid necessary discipline based on the discomfort of the interaction with the one employee (I call it “one degree of consideration”). Once you realize the rest of the organization (the other 359 degrees of consideration) is silently watching and hoping that you intervene to correct the one individual, the decision to discipline becomes much easier.
Indeed, when you are thinking at the organizational level, it becomes uncomfortable not to intervene. If you cannot deliver appropriate disciplinary intervention, in person, face-to-face, and eye-to-eye, then there is a problem on your end. You either lack confidence in your delivery (which may just require additional experience), or you lack confidence in your decision (which means you better rethink it). Either probably means you own some of “their” poor performance. If you lack confidence in delivering discipline, there’s a good chance you lacked confidence in delivering clear expectations to begin with; lack of experience does not relieve you from the responsibility of making good decisions, just like on the fireground.
Articulate Your Expectations Early, Be Consistent, Never Threaten, and Never Flinch
A frequent mistake, especially among new officers, is the failure to state expectations to their direct reports. For myself, I can tell you that it felt awkward to tell people what I expected of them; as if I were some kind of power-hungry boss on an ego trip. I’d certainly witnessed such things in new supervisors before and wanted no part of it. But, I would learn later that the failure to set expectations early is equally damaging. Just as there are power-hungry “bosses,” there are also self-centered subordinates; these subordinates take far more from the organization than they contribute, and they do it at the expense of those around them. When you fail to hold those people accountable, which is not procedurally possible without formally setting expectations (e.g., in performance evaluations and discipline, if needed), you fail others in the organization because you have failed to supervise.
Being consistent as a new officer is difficult because you’re still learning what is required to lead. I’ve been in the business since 1979 and I’m still learning how to lead. I would urge you to be consistent in what you require of your people, but also to be flexible in how you require it of them. As I shared in the first article of this series, I did not know how important these things were; it was only a great question by friends/subordinates that made me think it through; “What are your expectations?” they asked me. These directives are what I expect, but each year, each day, I learn better ways about how to support others in meeting those expectations.
The word “discipline” has a negative connotation with which we are most familiar. The flip side of discipline’s meaning, a positive one with which we’re less familiar, is the adherence to a code of conduct for the good of the order. The fire service code of conduct is founded on the protection of life and property; in each organization this foundation is enabled through various rules and procedures. We are not “drafted” into the fire service. This is not forced conscription; we choose to work hard and seek selection into the service, into the discipline of firefighting. When we either forget or forego the code, rules, and procedures of our discipline (positive), then we need discipline (negative) to help us make a behavioral course correction. This may sound harsh, but it is the history of human nature; I respectfully defy you to find any sustainable organization that has no rules or fails to enforce the rules it has. That said, the best organizations are driven by values rather than rules, but rules always remain. The effectiveness of discipline is not the frequency of its use but the certainty by all that it will be used when appropriate. This is important for both those that are solid people committed to and relying on the organizational mission and those flirting with self-serving pursuits at the expense of the organizational mission.
Don’t “flinch” when voices rise, fingers point, and emotional accusations mount. Flinching in this sense means deviating from your expectation. Every time you flinch sends the message that it might be worth the effort for someone to rant and rave because they might not be held accountable. Every time you don’t flinch you send a clear message to the individual, and to all observing (make no mistake, EVERYONE is observing), that ranting and raving is not effective and most likely makes things worse for you. This requires you to be very confident in your expectations and to have clearly stated them in advance of the behavior that deviates from them.
Redeem Others From Their Mistakes; Do This with Respect, Sincerity, and Resolve.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of redeeming oneself says, “Do something that compensates for poor past performance or behavior.” Have you ever made a mistake, one you wish you could turn back the clock on and do better? If not, you will. Only then will this directive really make sense because it requires empathy. Having the capacity to empathize with people when they make mistakes does not relieve you from holding them appropriately accountable as a supervisor, but it does give you a priceless opportunity.
Empathy allows you to appreciate what people and relationships can become and not merely what they are or have been. In recent years, we’ve come to recognize there are many kinds of “intelligence” beyond the old intelligence quotient (IQ). One of those is called appreciative intelligence (AI), which is an essential ability in leaders, especially in terms of helping others work through their mistakes. According to one author, AI is “…the ability to see the mighty oak in the acorn.” People can, indeed MUST, be able to forgive themselves to work through mistakes at the personal level. But in organizations, redemption can only be accomplished at the interpersonal level, where others have to let the person work through their mistakes as well. You cannot force this from others. However, as an officer you can lead the way if the person is genuinely penitent and ready.
“Working through” a mistake is different than just “moving on” from a mistake. Moving on, as I mean it here, is looking at a mess you’ve made and then trying to distance yourself from it because it’s too big to fix, too painful to engage, too hard on your ego to own, or any other reasons that focus on distance rather than resolution. Working through a problem is about someone focusing on resolution. This takes great courage to do so. There must be understanding and ownership of the mistake. To the extent possible, the consequences of the mistake should have run their course. There needs to be a “readiness” of others in the organization to “let” the person start resolving the mistake; if the organization is not ready, it will reject any effort made by the individual.
If an individual has the courage to genuinely work through his mistake, you need to genuinely support him—not out of pity or weakness but out of respect for his courage. Respect can be given in negative forms (e.g., fearful, begrudging, forced, and so on), but for this article I am referring to “sincere” respect. Be openly invested in his success; not just passively observing.
Last, you must have resolve in this. As a leader, one of your primary duties is to leave the organization in better condition than when you entered it by developing its people and creating a culture of accountability. Except for the most egregious behaviors, you are being negligent and cowardly when you fail to help people redeem a member from his mistakes. There are no perfect people, nor are there perfect organizations, so how you redeem yourself from mistakes is vital to any measure of growth and sustainability. Otherwise, for all of us, it’s simply one (mistake)-and-done.
Do the Right Thing, and Do it Swiftly
It’s been said that “it’s never too late to do the right thing.” Although I agree with the sentiment, (i.e., always trying to do the right thing), the bitter truth is that it can be too late to change outcomes if you wait long enough. It’s true on the fireground, and it’s true in personnel matters. Give tough decisions due diligence. Make the most of your time to gather information and make the most informed decision you can (investigate, investigate, investigate) while it can still change an outcome (i.e., no paralysis from analysis).
Once you feel you know what to do, do it quickly. Do not delay or wring your hands over how difficult this will be. Every minute you wait after knowing what you should do adds a minute of possible derailment, gives another moment for your weaker self to arrive, and sends a message that you’re neither committed to nor sure of what “right” is. If you are not committed to doing what’s right as a leader, you give “wrong” a place to establish roots. Edmund Burke said it best: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
If a Disciplinary Issue is Beyond Your Authority, Put a “Bow” on It
This is the administrative task of reporting your findings from “investigate, investigate, investigate” to your supervisor if the discipline required is beyond your authority. Don’t simply go into their office and announce that so-and-so needs to be suspended/demoted/terminated. Inept handling of a disciplinary action is incompetence on your part. It makes the problem employee nearly bulletproof thereafter because subsequent actions always look like retribution for your initial mistake rather than prudent action against poor behavior thereafter, which is nearly certain with poor employees.
Place Anyone Under Your Command on Immediate Administrative Leave for Good Cause
This directive is something I must do for my subordinate supervisors. It’s not something they can do for themselves. It is essential that this expectation is stated before all because it delivers a dual message. It sets the expectation that your subordinate supervisors immediately by removing the person, if necessary, if that behavior is egregious and dangerous to the individual, the organization, or the public. It also sends the message that you’ll support this action by those supervisors; they don’t need to ask “Mother, may I?” Do your homework here with your legal and human resources departments and give clear rules of engagement to your subordinate supervisors. This action is only reserved for operational safety issues (failure to follow command decisions on incidents) and personal safety issues (violence in the workplace). Notwithstanding those reservations, this sends a clear message of support for your subordinate supervisor.
Genuinely Know and Care for Your People
As others have noted, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. There is a fine balance you must keep when getting to know your people. Like so many other concepts, it’s easier to point out examples of what right looks like rather than attempt some all-inclusive definition. Following is my attempt at some examples of “balance”:
- Know (to the extent they share them with you) the favorite hobbies and pastimes of your people, but rarely if ever participate in those with them. Even if you and they can maintain the proper separation between work and play, it gives others a foothold to think otherwise. This takes some time, and is an ongoing effort.
- Your people should feel comfortable contacting you 24/7/365 for operational matters and personal/immediate family matters of medical urgency. They should be hesitant to contact you outside of your typical work hours for other matters. It’s not about being aloof, and you’re never really “off-duty” as a leader anyway. It’s about making them really think through the urgency of the issue, about separating a need to speak with “the chief” as opposed to a desire to speak with “the chief.”
- Your people should expect you to appear if they are having a genuine personal or family crisis, whether they ask for you or not. It’s not about intruding on their privacy; it’s about saying to your member, in person, “I’m here for you and your family, as your chief and as a person who cares for you.” Let him know you’re equally comfortable handling insurance questions as you are feeding the pets while they are away. Rank has no place in the care of a person in need.
Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
Frank L. Frievalt is the assistant fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes (CA) Fire Protection District. He has 35 years experience in city, county, state, and federal fire services from the ranks of firefighter to assistant chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in fire and emergency management, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in political science.