Lessons, Models, and Stories

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

We have trudged through our monthly discussion about how the capability and personality of a boss can influence the internal environment of an organization. Our ongoing discussion touched on how the internal characteristics of a fire department, such as positive, progressive, and sensible, can create a workplace that brings out the best in the humans in that system. These characteristics are like most organizational things and exist on a scale (big-little, positive-negative, hot-cold, nice-mean, and so on) that describes a full range of stages of the state or place on the scale of that factor. Both ends of the scale reflect the existence of an opposite condition: No matter where the factor lands on the scale, there is a boss that goes with that organizational element who is responsible for either the positive or negative score. That score, most of the time, is a reflection of the boss’s approach, capability, and personality. We have literally “spent” years in this column discussing how a functional boss can behave in a way to consistently land on the positive end of the scale.

Organizational “Standoff”

It is critical for serious students of boss performance to understand the details along the effectiveness scale in terms of the boss’s behavior and to use their personal and positional resources to continually move to the positive end of the scale. The linear geometry of how the scale describes a range of conditions is fairly simple and straightforward; the scale process predictably gets complicated when the players (workers/bosses) show up and act like humans.

When I was a baby boss, I received a very primitive lesson in human behavior watching an old, autocratic chief who was continually frustrated and angry with the “attitude” of the troops. I was fascinated that he would frequently blurt out that being a command officer would be an ideal job if it weren’t for the firefighters. The first time he said it, I thought he was kidding. As I watched and listened, I realized and was fascinated that he was serious and that he energetically behaved just as he really felt.

The troops also watched and listened (as usual), and they were aware (as usual) of how nutty the things the boss said were and how the boss regarded the troops. Any bosses who think the troops are not “in their head” live in a dream world. How the boss felt, articulated, and acted out was not based on how the workers performed (very skillfully) but how they acted around him (not respectful enough). He would continually describe their lack of respect for him as a “bad attitude.” I also observed that the troops played their part in the game and effectively treated him interpersonally at a level that was just below being insubordinate and sent the very subtle message that they regarded him as a jerk.

The relationship continued because it was energized by the boss’s negative feeling toward the troops and the troops’ operating down to the feeling he had for them. I was somewhat separated at the time from this worker vs. boss dance, and what I observed was very educational to me. It didn’t take much for me to conclude that the firefighters, who are smart and mischievous and who have lots of available planning/plotting time, team mentality and capability, long memories, and so on, will consistently win any game played between a command-level boss and a group of firefighters. They absolutely love the confusion and disruption they create.

Transitioning Focus from Operations to Command

During the period when I observed this bizarre ongoing boss/worker interaction, I was in the young officer stage of trying to understand organizing and managing fireground operations. The focus of my education and attention at that time revolved around the operational fireground work we did on the task and tactical levels. Later, I moved up a bit to struggle with the strategic level; but at the time, I was preoccupied with fire behavior, building construction, and tactical operations. When I look back, I regarded a burning building as my customer. I believe that my operational preoccupation was not only predictable but also very positive. I was then a part of a group of young department members who worked together for a long time. This group was very interested in improving our individual and collective fireground operational capabilities. The relationship this mutual interest created was very positive and progressive because we were all involved in the promotional process; and, as we were promoted, it gave us a progressive platform to become more effective in the work we did. I guess how I related to my colleagues was to actively participate with the team to be more effective in mostly how we put water on the fire; this hydraulic reality is as critical today as it was then.

I connected to being a boss during this period in terms of performing as a fireground commander (no incident commander term invented yet); although we all had a very positive team relationship, my focus revolved around quickly evaluating conditions, developing a plan, and making the assignments required to pull it off. I valued the troops as highly skilled workers I liked a lot and respected even more (because of their capability), but I mostly lived in the world defined in tactical terms.

Career, Part 2: The Advent of Mrs. Smith

Then, on a dark and windy day, Mrs. Smith showed up in my life as a boss and forced me to go on to a new school for the second half of my career. During half of Part 2 of my career, I continually recalled the way the old chief regarded humans and made it necessary for me to receive a whole new set of lessons about how humans feel and how they act based on those feelings. The next natural part of the new lesson was that those actions became a reflection of the kindness of the boss.

As I was struggling to somehow translate my former (water) H2O vs. British thermal units (Btus) preoccupation into more human terms, I read the following story that has stuck with me for about 40 years:

A medical research college is conducting a cancer experiment. They are using rabbits as the test subjects. The rabbits are all genetically identical. They use a computer program to divide the rabbits into four groups-all the same-with about a dozen rabbits in each group. Graduate student lab assistants care for the rabbits. The researchers are engaged in a project where they inject bad stuff into the bunnies and then observe the effect. Three of the groups get sick and die on schedule. The fourth group gets exactly the same injections, but they keep going and, in fact, seem to look better and do better. Now, the scientists are scratching their scientific heads trying to figure out how this is happening.

When I originally read the story, I related to it. Cancer was the customer of the very well-trained scientists just as a burning building was mine in the first half of my class experience.

Finally, the researchers focused on the healthy bunny guy. They looked at the lab assistants. When they interviewed the student responsible for the thriving bunny, they discovered that he loves rabbits and gave names to all his bunny buddies. He spent all night taking the rabbits out of their cages, petting them, and talking to them. In fact, during the night, he even routinely put a couple of rabbits in the same cage so they could hang out with each other, noting that rabbits are social animals and it is good for them to have company.

Now, the experiment shifted its focus from how the rabbits scientifically die to the effect of kindness on their survival.

I wonder if the scientist bosses felt that their job was okay except for the rabbits, as our old chief did.

For me (a C- student), I wondered, if it works on rabbits, why won’t it be as effective on humans? What is the effect of kindness in the relationship of the troops under a boss’s care? As we have refined our approach to customer service, we have consistently experienced that Mrs. Smith remembers that she was treated directly and personally with kindness as a human customer by human firefighters, and she really doesn’t connect very much to anything technical or complicated.

I don’t think Firefighter Smith, who is a customer on the inside, is much different from Mrs. Smith, who is a customer on the outside. In our customer service adventure, we refined the word nice and attached the standard of the very human behaviors of kindness, patience, and consideration.

There is a set of personal and positional engagement techniques a boss must use to achieve these outcomes; we should list what those boss actions look like when they are employed because they define kindness. The lab assistants for the healthy bunnies bulletproofed the rabbits with kindness; the scientists all day shoved cancer into the groups of bunnies that perished. The rabbit whisperer petted his bunnies all night. It seems as if kindness was more powerful than a hypodermic needle full of liquid death.

Many times, our troops get a ton of sad, awful stuff inserted in them. I guess if their bosses paid attention to them, really knew their names and encouraged all the “bunnies” to hang out together, our world could be better.

I should be more accurate and add the word “simple” to my frequent description of myself as a boss behavior student. As a simple student, it seems that for me to really learn and understand, I must receive a lesson, connect it to a model, and hear a related story before I get it mentally loaded. This basic three-part educational process describes in understandable and doable terms how a boss can create a positive internal organizational environment. The lesson is, the effect of how the bosses treat those under their care will determine the quality of their subordinates’ survival in the organization. The two contrasting models are the old boss and the lab kid for the healthy bunnies.

The point of the story is that the firefighters under the chief’s “care” spent their whole day distracted, trying to find a new way to aggravate him. The lab story shows the amazing power that kindness can have even on bunny death row.

In recent installments, we attached words to describe a positive internal organizational environment created by a functional boss. Add the word “humane” to the list. The meaning of humane is “to show great compassion and caring for others and to alleviate another’s suffering.” A little poster in front of every riding position on Big Red might regularly remind everyone on the rig why we are in business.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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