No-Brainer Management, Part 6: Behavior Management


We are working our way through a series of separate subjects that together make up a No-Brainer Management writing/teaching program in which I am currently involved. So far, we have covered the basic topics of personal effectiveness, where we used our inventory of body parts to describe how well we perform. We connected a set of rules of engagement to our anatomy and physiology, which provides a simple, easy-to-understand instruction manual that helps us perform more effectively (particularly bosses). We then looked at how our inside organizational behavior connects to how we deliver service to the outside customer—we always say, “How Chief Smith treats Firefighter Smith gets acted out when that firefighter actually delivers service to Mrs. Smith.” We also presented a long-standing, very basic performance model that directly affects how well we are able to physically execute when we deliver problem-solving service.

Last month, I ran out of space when covering a critical part of how the performance model is applied. I presented the basic parts of the model that include standard operating procedures/training/ application/critique/revision. The ongoing application of the integrated set of steps creates, manages, and continually improves organizational performance. Each one of the functions has its own box in the model, and the boxes are connected and directed by a set of arrows that create a flow chart.

The model must be well-known and used often to ensure that every part of the process is completed. When we leave off or miss a step, we create confusion and a “gap” that messes up inside/outside service delivery. The boxes in the model contain the management steps; this is the science of the process. The boxes are rational, neat, well-arranged, and predictable. The whole process—what’s in the process boxes—is driven and directed by human effort. In the No-Brainer class, we describe the humans (affectionately) as “blobs”; this is the art of the process. The blobs are irregular; untidy; emotional; nutty; and, many times, unpredictable. The blobs (just like humans) are scattered in between the boxes in an irregular way.

Both boxes and blobs require management and leadership in and of themselves, and they necessarily go together. Don’t neglect either one. Blobs involve relationships and organizational history (people/places/things) and go in between/around the boxes. The blobs serve to connect, integrate, and lubricate the process. They are the WD-40 of the organizational performance management and improvement systems. If we only have the boxes, we can create the process, but we keep bumping into each other. If we have only the blobs, we all get along, but we never seem to get anything done. We must have an effective balance of both, and that balance requires functional bosses who can execute both science (boxes) and art (blobs) at the same time in the same place. This execution is a critical boss role that greatly affects how well the organization is aligned.


The next section in the system involves behavior management. Behavior management, in contrast to performance management, which manages and builds the system around standard operating procedures (SOPs), is structured according to rules and regulations (R&R). SOPs are organizational; R&R are personal. R&R are a big deal because they in great part describe and define the acceptable/unacceptable personal behavior boundaries of department members. If we do not effectively create, teach, and manage an effective R&R behavior-control framework officially within the organization, we cannot manage/survive every (very diverse) person in the department defining acceptable/unacceptable behavior. R&R must serve as the sensible, effective, humane, supportive behavior management-control system for everyone within the organization. The organization must create a proactive approach to teaching, managing, and controlling behavior based on effective bosses who model positive, under-control behavior in every situation—what this means is that they effectively deploy their anatomy and physiology (A&P).

The basic foundation of behavior management begins with people who have a history of being well-behaved. The next step is to always support them in a progressive manner so they can practice and apply their own self-discipline. Currently, it is very competitive to become a career firefighter. In most departments, there are typically 100 applicants (or many more) for each position. Applicants are tested mentally and physically and are routinely interviewed multiple times. Their work and academic, criminal, and personal history are thoroughly investigated, examined, and evaluated. The organization can be very picky when it hires a new member. Based on having many candidates to choose from, it can eliminate a ton of future problems by selecting out candidates they are not confident will naturally live within the framework of the R&R.

Although we typically attract and hire absolutely exceptional individuals as entering firefighters and they come to us with flat bellies and bright shiny faces, they are still human and will experience throughout their (many times, very long) careers with us all the wear and tear that comes with being a humanoid living in the real world. Life is a contact sport that will scuff you up as you proceed with living, and our fire kids, as they get older, will be subject to physical, emotional, and occupational challenges and difficulties. If we could just write a set of smart, complete, and reasonable rules of conduct and then be finished with the subject, our world would be a fine, simple place. No such luck!

Our challenge is that our rules, while absolutely necessary, are just the first step within an overall behavior support program that involves having the leadership and program elements that assist our members with what happens when life sets in—things like personal problems; workplace difficulties; relationship dysfunctions; personal addictions; law-abiding problems (mostly driving under the influence and domestic violence); financial confusion; sadly, suicide; and on and on. Supporting and assisting our people with their regular life experiences are huge blob leadership functions of an effective boss.

Through the years, I have maintained that when we hire new department members, we also “hire” their Moms. Their Moms, who began positive behavior direction almost from birth, have raised the young firefighters since they were wee tads. Moms have the most influential (and powerful) effect because what they do is based on maternal affection. There is no stronger connection to how we behave than the emotional attachment we have to a person, place, or thing. The reason our young members do so well and so naturally deliver positive service to Mrs. Smith is that they can still hear their Moms telling them to “be nice.” It took me a long time as a fire chief to truly and realistically understand where I was in the very real world “chain of command.” On a really good day, my place in the order of influence was somewhere behind the 400+ Moms who had raised the kids currently on duty riding on our fire engines. I finally told the troops, “If you don’t know what to do, just call your Mom!” It seemed that when they did that, everything turned out okay.

We have very appropriate and necessary tactical safety SOPs that protect us from getting physically injured and killed. Safety procedures are managed as rules and not as guidelines—i.e., red light = full stop, smoke = SCBA. Those procedures create an operational response to hazards like thermal and toxic insult, structural collapse, response accidents, and so on. When we break these rules, we can become physically dead. R&R are in place to prevent mostly individual behaviors that can cause us to be occupationally injured and dead. When this occurs, we are as personally “dead” as if a roof had collapsed and killed us.

Both sets of rules (SOPs/R&R) are critical to our survival and happiness. We do not have a huge ceremony and memorialize a member who is a victim of self-induced R&R “collapse.” Such a departure is as heartbreaking (but less dramatic) as a tactical death, and our service must begin to provide as much behavior assistance and support as it does to prevent operational/tactical injuries and fatalities. They don’t play bagpipe music when a firefighter is separated from the service because of an irresolvable behavior problem. Perhaps it is now time that we regard behavioral casualties as a special category line-of-duty death from the perspective that we investigate them and recommend preventive reactions.

In my travels, I encounter firefighters who describe the R&R in their departments as being out of date and often containing a large number of mostly historic no-no’s. They explain that the “monster rule book” evolves, as the chief becomes concerned/upset over an act, an action, or a situation, and that that reaction causes the big boss to produce a new rule. In these cases, the R&R are in effect an organizational family album that records any time the boss’s blood pressure goes up to the rule-writing level. Part of the internal organizational folklore is that many of these rules are named after a particular misbehavior (and many times colorful) person. Over time, this rule personalization becomes an interesting cultural process that can amount to writing the family history of misbehavior on the walls of the tribal cave. This process can describe what was going on (with whom) internally at a particular time.

An effective set of R&R needs to be shorter rather than longer (you can get into Heaven with 10), describe what is critical, have a negative/positive balance; be easy to teach and understand; and be natural for our members to follow. We could call them No-Brainer Rules of conduct and behavior; the short and sweet approach should eliminate obsolete, unenforced, and goofy ones. They should be very basic, permanent, and timeless and look something like the following: Don’t do drugs. No booze or sex on duty. Don’t fight. Don’t steal. Don’t break the law. Don’t gossip. Don’t do anything that harms the department. The rules should direct us to follow SOPs, be safe, be punctual, wear the colors, help each other, prevent harm, and be nice. In addition to the very basic stuff, every organization must add whatever is required to fit its particular needs and special local standards.

As we have said over and over, the most effective behavior control is self-discipline; it is really the only control that exists in a natural and successful way. Sometimes behavior problems do occur, and the boss must add whatever “inspiration” is required for the worker to come up to the performance or behavior standard. Effective bosses add only what is needed: Too little direction = substandard; too much direction = micromanagement. Being able to add only what is required to come up to the standard is a big deal in the effective level of boss engagement. To do this effectively, bosses must combine art and science (boxes and blobs), pay attention, and sometimes put on their big boy/girl uniforms (display backbone) to make an adjustment that brings us to an effective level. Effective bosses must understand that the most “unnice” thing they should accept is substandard performance/behavior. Do not confuse being nice with not doing your job. If you are a boss and do not fix problems, the troops will think you are a dud. If you act like a jerk, your behavior will create a huge distraction, and the focus will be on your folly and not on the real issue.

A truly sad event occurs when the member’s behavior problem outperforms the solution the organization can produce; that person must then be defined as organizationally maladaptive and be “selected out” of the system simply because the organization does not have the resources to correct the problem. The answer to this very critical problem is to prevent the situation from reaching this point by an effective boss’s resolving the problem while it is a misdemeanor and preventing it from becoming a felony. Our service is beginning to pay more attention to developing support systems to eliminate such occupational casualties. These efforts are long overdue.

A major part of providing such support to members having personal difficulties is the degree of importance given to providing up-front, continuous boss direction and assistance. Supervisors of every level have a basic leadership responsibility to stay connected to their workers; this necessitates effective engagement by personally interacting with the workers to continuously evaluate their welfare and mental hygiene. No one else has the organizational access or the personal status needed to establish a positive relationship between Boss Smith and Worker Smith.

Regular managers are not expected to be trained therapists, but they must have knowledge of the employee assistance resources available within the organization. They have a direct relationship (hopefully, trust-based) with their troops and are in the best position to become aware of personal difficulties and then refer the individuals to appropriate assistance (if you see something/do something).

Effective bosses serve as “connectors” by referring their workers to appropriate assistance in a confidential and nonenabling way. In virtually every survey that asks workers what is most important to them in the workplace, the consistent and most frequent answer is that their boss cares about them. There is no more important time to deliver genuine caring than when that person is out of balance and critically needs support; that is the time when that troubled person will realize if the boss safely has his back or the personal courage to protect his front. This is what Mrs. Smith remembers after we help her through her worst day, and this is also what Worker Smith remembers.

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

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