By David Griffin

We constantly hear the discussion of cultural change in the fire service. Unfortunately, many times, it’s only talk. Yes, change begins with a discussion. However, true cultural change comes with action; action by the firefighter, the driver, the company officer, the battalion chief, the deputy chief, and so on.

Change occurs collectively from everyone involved in an organization at three important levels:  the individual, the team, and the organization. In previous articles, I have mentioned these levels and described organizations that have improved on them to make their environment dynamic and evolutionary.

Ask yourself, “How can my organization perform a similar assessment and then take the appropriate action to create a cultural change with the use of learning?” By using a scientific instrument called “Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionnaire” (DLOQ) developed by Dr. Karen Watkins and Dr. Victoria Marsick. This questionnaire will allow your organization to identify areas of success and, more importantly, identify areas that need improvement. It has been used at numerous organizations, universities, and conferences at which I have spoken over the past year. It’s amazing the answers, the dialogue, and the action that have come from this instrument.

According to Watkins and Marsick—who granted me permission to use their survey in my research—at the individual level, organizations must promote inquiry and dialogue as well as create continuous learning opportunities for all personnel. At the team level, an organization must encourage collaboration and team learning. At the organizational level, personnel must be empowered toward a collective vision while creating systems to capture and share learning. Collectively, the aforementioned characteristics of these three levels are in place for one main goal:  to promote continuous learning and transformation of the organization.

Does your organization do this? If the answer is “no,” then why not? If this bothers you, you must understand why it’s important to focus not only on the culture of your organization but the learning that does or does not take place to improve it. From their decades of research, Watkins and Marsick found overwhelming evidence indicating that “organizations have experienced wave after wave of rapid transformation as global markets and external political and economic changes make it impossible for any business or service, whether private, public, or nonprofit to cling to past ways of doing work.” (Watkins and Marsick, 1997) Read that statement again; that’s powerful information for the members of this profession that continue to say, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

The DLOQ consists of 55 statements, each one being rated on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being “almost never” and 6 is “almost always.” Following are a few of the statements from the DLOQ that can help you begin the assessment process and get your mind hungry for the rest of the survey. As you read the statements from Watkins’ and Marsick’s survey, rate them from 1 (almost never) to 6 (almost always).            

Individual Level statements include the following:

  • In my organization, people openly discuss mistakes in order to learn from them.
  • In my organization, people help each other learn.
  • In my organization, people listen to others’ views before speaking.
  • In my organization, people are encouraged to ask why regardless of rank.
  • In my organization, people spend time building trust with each other.

Team Level statements include the following:

  • In my organization, teams/groups have the freedom to adapt their goals as needed.
  • In my organization, teams/groups treat members as equals, regardless of rank, culture, or other differences.
  • In my organization, teams/groups focus on the group’s task and how well the group is working.
  • In my organization, teams/groups are rewarded for their achievements as a team/group.
  • In my organization, teams/groups are confident that the organization will act on their recommendations.

Organizational Level statements include the following:

  • My organization enables people to get needed information at any time quickly and easily.
  • My organization creates systems to measure gaps between current and expected performance.
  • My organization invites people to contribute to the organization’s vision.
  • My organization considers the impact of decisions on employee morale.
  • In my organization, leaders empower others to help carry out the organization’s vision.

So, how did your organization rate on these 15 statements? Remember, that was only 15 out of 55 statements. Hopefully, those statements and your rating of them helped you identify some areas in your department which need improvement. As you can see, the first step is identification; once you identify the areas that are in dire need of improvement, then it’s time to develop the program to fix them.

You may now be asking, “How am I going to get my department to complete this survey?” Take the complete survey and place all of the questions and the rating system into a survey program such as kwiksurveys.com or surveymonkey.com. Once the survey is placed in the online program, you can mass e-mail a link to everyone in your organization. Then, sit back and watch the results come in. Make sure you place a deadline on the survey and stress the fact that it is all 100-percent anonymous.

If you want to go a step further, make the survey a mandatory officer development drill; this way, it has to be completed, and you will get a higher percentage of respondents. In a world where everyone wants their opinion heard, this survey will allow your entire organization’s collective opinions to be heard. Of course, you’re going to have outliers in the survey; some individuals will rate every statement low and others rate every statement high. However, these will balance each other out. From the numerous organizations I have helped complete and analyze the DLOQ, the answers to the statements from the nonoutliers are within one to two ratings of each other; this is consistent with a study that will produce accurate and worthwhile results.

Once the study is completed, you will have a better finger on the pulse of your organization. Yes, some of the information is going to take you by surprise. As a leader, you have a few options such as the following:

  1. Take action to address the areas that need improvement,
  2. talk about making a change, or
  3. continue to act like nothing is wrong.

Obviously, the first choice would be more conducive to the growth of your members and the improvement of your organization. Better yet, publish the survey results to the department so that it knows where the improvements need to be made as well. Will you be able to fix everything? Of course not! The personnel with their “boots on the ground” will understand this if the survey process and the results are dealt with in a professional, transparent, and humble manner.

Once the results are published, it’s time to find an area that needs improvement and fix it; not next week, not tomorrow, but immediately. What are you waiting for? True leaders don’t pass the buck on to the next person; they make a decision to make change. Talk is only good for so long. The troops will see right through this, especially if it is a consistent practice by an organization’s leaders. Remember, as a leader we serve our troops—not the other way around. We serve them to make sure they are safe on the streets with the best training, equipment, and culture possible for a dynamic and evolutionary organization. This goes much farther than a handshake and a smile; the troops want a leader that takes action to change their department and its members for the better; not one that only talks the talk but, when it’s time to get dirty, doesn’t walk the walk.

These days, talk is cheap. If you want to be a leader that your people will follow and become engrossed in your vision, treat them as equals, be transparent and humble and, most importantly, take action. Don’t be the chief officer that relies on the fact that you’ve been on the job for 30 years. Be the chief officer that has done something to make a difference in those 30 years. Being around that long doesn’t mean you did anything substantial; it means you took up space in a profession that is being flooded with firefighters up to chief officers that take action every hour of every day for safer and more innovative practices. Which one are you?

Change is ACTION, not talk. Do something about it.

 

REFERENCES

Watkins, K., & Marsick, V. (1997). Dimensions of the learning organization questionnaire. Warwick, RI: Partners for the Learning Organization. Reprinted in Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (2003). Demonstrating the value of an organization’s learning culture: The dimensions of the learning organization questionnaire. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 5(2), 132-151.

 

DAVID GRIFFIN, a member of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department’s Training Division, has a BS degree in education, a MS degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate in organizational leadership and development. He is a certified fire officer and is enrolled in the Executive Fire Office Program. He is the owner of On A Mission, LLC.