Periodically, I like to take stock in all the accomplishments my department achieves. Personally, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to reflect on all the things we do, and it’s important that the members see the list of accomplishments so they can feel good about their contributions toward providing and improving on emergency services. One disappointing thing about taking inventory of our successes is realizing that a very small number of firefighters do the majority of the work.

This is known as the “Pareto Principle” or the “80:20 Rule.” In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto created a mathematical formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country, observing that 20 percent of the people owned 80 percent of the wealth. Applied to work, it means that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. If the Pareto Principle holds true for your fire department, it means that 80 percent of your firefighters aren’t breaking a sweat to help your organization progress. For the 80 percent who are sitting on the sidelines, they’re not the least bit interested in the volume of work being done by the 20 percent who are working hard. For them, it may as well all happen by “magic.”

As I reflected on this phenomenon, I quickly realized that the very same 80 percent whose contributions are marginal are the same firefighters who do most of the complaining when the “magic” doesn’t happen. Then the light bulb came on. There is a positive correlation here, and it isn’t a coincidence. The 80:20 Rule is in effect again, only in reverse.

The 80 percent who are sitting on the sidelines are the very same firefighters who are doing 80 percent of the complaining. Likewise, the 20 percent of firefighters who are doing all the work do very little complaining. Hmmm. Maybe this is because the 20 percent are so busy doing all the work they don’t have time to complain. If this logic holds true, then the 80 percent who are making only a marginal contribution are complaining so much because they have too much time on their hands.

You’re probably hoping I’m going to dispense advice in this article about how to get 100 percent of your firefighters to participate so much that no one will have time to complain. Sorry to disappoint you. If I could figure that one out, I’d be able to retire early. Of course, then I’d having nothing to do but complain.

I do, however, think it’s important for everyone in the department to understand that things don’t just happen. Behind all that “magic,” real people are working hard to keep the department running smoothly. Maybe it’s the person who makes sure the broken pagers get fixed or the person who makes sure all the apparatus are scheduled for routine maintenance, or the person who trains the recruits, or the person who makes sure the soda machine gets filled. Make a list of all the things that get done by “magic” day in and day out, and identify all the magicians who work behind the scenes. You’ll be amazed.

As you begin to discuss some things you can do to increase participation, a word of caution. You may want to ask for some input from the 20 percent doing the work. If you do, you might hear them say that they’d like to have more help, especially with the routine chores. Don’t be surprised if some of your magicians say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the offer of additional help. Why might they say this? There are a variety of reasons. They may enjoy what they’re doing and might resent being forced to share their work with others. They know who’s dedicated and who’s not. It may create more work for the magicians if they have to try to get productivity from a marginal performer on top of their regular workload. Thus, they may prefer to work alone. So, before you start carving up the work your magicians do, ask them if they want an assistant.

We’re all intrigued by the illusions of magicians. The better the magician, the more amazed we are as we think to ourselves, “How did he do that?” However, as soon as you learn the secret behind the illusion, it’s no longer magic and anyone can do the trick. Relating this to the magic that happens in your department, you can do the entire organization a favor by taking the mystery out of the illusion that things just happen by magic.

Heap plenty of praise on the magicians. Thank them publicly and often. You need to make sure that your appreciation is sincere. When’s the last time you walked up to a magician and said, “Thank you for keeping the soda machine filled. I, for one, appreciate the fact that the machine has never been out of iced tea when I’ve wanted one. I know that takes a lot of work on your part”? If you do this in front of the 80 percent who are just sitting in the audience watching the show, you’ve just revealed the secret behind the “magic” of how the soda machine always has their favorite beverage when they want one.

Here’s an example of a trick you can keep up your sleeve to help your magicians. Your equipment manager has come to you and complained about firefighters who don’t report problems with their gear, then they complain when their gear isn’t perfect. He’s irritated because he wants to do a good job, but the firefighters don’t seem to appreciate all the work he puts into making sure their gear is perfect. To them, it happens by magic.

Because you work backstage at this magic show, you know the secret to the illusion. It’s not magic at all. It’s the hard work and dedication of your equipment manager. You ask him how you can help. He tells you that all he’s looking for is for the firefighters to follow the procedures and to report problems with their gear in a timely manner. He’s one frustrated magician.

At the next drill, you look out on the audience and you notice two things: The audience is your typical 80:20 mix, and everyone’s turnout gear looks great. Nothing’s in disrepair. The illusion from the audience is this happens by magic. But you know differently.

You stand up in front of the audience and say to the equipment manager: “The turnout gear looks great. Thank you for all the hard work you do to make sure our gear is in tip-top shape. That can’t be an easy job. Is there anything we can do to help you?”

This statement serves two useful purposes. It pays a well-earned compliment to the equipment manager, and it opens the door for the magician to ask for a volunteer from the audience to assist with the illusion. You’ve all seen a magic act where the magician asks for a volunteer from the audience to help out. The question “Is there anything we can do to help out?” opens the door for the equipment manager to ask for someone, or for everyone, to help out.

Even though the equipment manager asks for help, the help he gets may only be temporary. Think about a magic show. It’s usually not too hard for a magician to get a volunteer from the audience for a single act, but the volunteer doesn’t typically join the show and go on tour with them. There’s a difference between involvement and commitment. If someone volunteers to help out on an occasional basis or when it’s convenient, that’s involvement. If he agrees to volunteer on a regular basis and takes partial ownership of the problem, that’s commitment.

Another thing you can do is to consciously choose not to be such a good magician. Follow the logic of this for a moment. Two ways a good magician fools us with the illusion is by the speed with which the trick is done and by being so well rehearsed that you never see him stumble. If the magician would slow down the trick or stumble through it, you’d all see how it’s done. Why? Because it’s not magic! It’s only an illusion. David Copperfield doesn’t really saw people in two. But he sure makes it look like he does.

If you slow down your magic trick, everyone gets to see how it happens. This doesn’t mean you don’t do your job. It just means you let everyone see how it’s done. For example, maybe the firefighter who fills the soda machine does it every Monday morning on his way to work. No one’s around, thus no one ever sees the secret of the magic trick. If he fills the machine on drill night, the audience reaction might be, “Aha! Now I get it! Now I know how it’s done!”

Remember that not everyone who watches a magic show wants to know how it’s done. Some don’t want the illusion to be spoiled. And so it is for some of your firefighters. They don’t really want to know how it all happens. They just want to sit in the audience and watch the show. They don’t want to think too long about how it’s done. Frankly, some don’t care. Just make it happen! The station’s clean; the soda machine’s full; the turnout gear’s in excellent condition; the ladders are certified; breathing apparatus are maintained; and the hose is clean, rolled and racked. It all happens by magic. Right?

RICHARD B. GASAWAY is chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department and has been a chief officer for 17 years. He has a master’s degree in business administration and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Gasaway lectures on management and leadership topics throughout the United States and Canada.

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