An Unusual Classroom with Unusual Classmates

Last month, I started to tell a story of a long-ago experience that produced a set of very durable and valuable human relations lessons that have stuck with me throughout my life. I described that at this early time (1970s) my fire department used an assignment to one battalion (3) on one shift (B) to segregate the organizational misfits (special-needs prisoners) from the general population “inmates.” This group was defined, categorized, and then relegated to a special place, mostly because the nonstandard personality, attitude, and approach of the group consistently outperformed the leadership ability of the bosses to effectively convert this unruly bunch into “responsible organizational citizens.” Forgive me for using a penitentiary vocabulary for descriptive purposes. It seemed to me at the time that our organization had filled the standard roles of warden, guards, and acceptable and unacceptable inmates.

I had spent my 10-year career up until that point on the A shift, where we imagined (or fantasized) that we constituted a collection of highly selected super firefighters. This feeling caused us to insulate ourselves in the cocoon of our little self-induced elite world. We were aware of the existence of the “special place” where the department quietly warehoused whomever they defined as misplaced and maladaptive, but it did not have a major impact on the rest of us, including me-that is, until I received my first assignment as a very young upstart battalion chief to the place and the “punishment” because I put the big bosses in the uncomfortable position of having to promote me to battalion chief about 15 years too soon based on my age and experience. I had jumped ahead in the cultural promotion (seniority) line, and my poor “timing” earned me the same sentence my new troops had received.

I went through the testing process with a happy heart and did not in any way intend to disrupt the system. Although I had been socialized to the style of the A shift, where I had been assigned for my 10-year career, I understood that many times a shift change came with a promotion based on where a vacancy existed. In fact, if I had just been assigned to B-3 on B shift, I would have just taken a deep breath and reported for duty even though I was aware of the history of how the inhabitants of the battalion were assigned there.

My boss, who conducted my very brief/terse “promotional ceremony,” clearly indicated that he was confident that I would become a victim of the West Side Wackos, just as the past group of three or four battalion chiefs who had been sent there to whip the “delinquents” into shape. That was my welcome to the command staff!

The assignment I was leaving was in a very positive place with a majority of members headed for the upward mobility track. There was a steady stream of promotions in the department based on the city’s rapid expansion. There was a very productive outlet for all sorts of personal and professional energy and development. I had spent my career in a class with the gifted kids. Now, I was responsible for and personally defined as a member of the special needs remedial class. I had never contemplated receiving that transfer and the related transition. Looking back, neither did the troops in that battalion ever have a brand new command officer assigned to them as a punishment for getting into the promotional line too quickly. I did not have much time to adjust because I started my new job the next day.

My New Assignment

It did not take long to understand that I was now the boss of a very special set of people.

My new assignment was in a fire station that housed an engine company and a battalion chief. The B shift company officer was a very experienced, eccentric old soldier who was cynical, sarcastic, and (as I learned very quickly) very smart. He was about the same age as my father. He had been assigned to that station for many years and had lived through a steady stream of battalion chiefs who basically threw up their hands and moved on to better-behaved, under-control places because they all consistently failed to get the B-3 troops to march off into the sunset in an orderly fashion.

He commented that never had one of the reformers been assigned there in quite the way as I was. His observation reflected that it was no secret that I had been sent there in a strangely punitive way. He also commented that he was not surprised by the administrative reaction to my situation. Then, he used some really adult words to describe his opinion about our department’s management. He was not timid in expressing his opinion, and I assumed that that could be one reason he was assigned to my new battalion. Along with the other firefighters “under my new command,” he became the best teacher I have ever encountered.

“Lesson Learned” Be Careful When Defining People

The first lesson I was taught by Battalion B-3 was, be careful when defining people.

As I became acquainted with the troops assigned to my new home, I quickly understood why they landed in their current spot. They were a bizarre collection of unique, mismatched characters. Their verbal discourse was very outspoken, not particularly proper or very respectful (but not disruptive) and generally critical of organizational pomposity and ineffective leadership performance. I was accustomed to being around well-behaved rule followers who were very careful of what they said. I had developed the very natural self-perception of being part of a high-performance work group with a very positive attitude and approach that matched their attitude. When I landed in my new home, I was surprised that I was fascinated when I listened to their iconoclastic comments, observations, and opinions.

There was a high level of fire activity in the battalion. At first, I wondered and was concerned about how they operated on the fireground. As we responded to incidents, I noticed that the fires got extinguished okay-in fact, many times they got extinguished better than okay. In those early days, we only had very early radio guidelines and had not refined incident communications (no standard operating procedures, training, follow-up, and so on), so most battalion chiefs did not do much-or many times any-radio direction with their companies.

I was fortunate at the time to teach in the brand new fire science program. We had developed what was the beginning of using very primitive fire simulations that involved sending/receiving orders and information management over the radio. I used those same techniques when we were on the fireground. I quickly noticed that when I gave an order to a company over the radio, the members responded “Okay” and then generally carried out the order. If they didn’t understand the order, or if the order didn’t make sense, they said so; and we interacted until it did. Whenever it was possible, I would connect to the company officers face-to-face and have a “whatdaya think” conversation before we took action. Every one of those officers was a lot older and more experienced than I. Listening to them always seemed to improve the effectiveness of our performance. The longer we cross-pollinated over the radio, the better our operations became.

As I continued to operate and observe my new colleagues, I became confused. I was assigned to organizational Siberia with a collection of dissidents who landed in this outpost for some nonstandard, unacceptable behavior. Now, as I socialized with them, I observed that they were actually doing the really important part of the job as well as or sometimes even better than the high-class place I just left. None of this lined up in any kind of logical way. As I continued to wonder my way through my confusion, it occurred to me that they were the products of being defined in a very special way and the absolute power of such a definition, especially when the negative definition comes from your boss.

All this energetic mental activity caused me to recall something I had heard or read in the past about the dynamics of a self-fulfilling definition/prophecy. The description used a classroom experiment to make the point. Some researcher (disguised as a principal) explained to a teacher at the beginning of school that the teacher would be teaching a class of gifted, exceptional children. After the class got underway, the students’ performance was measured; it came up to the level of the description because the teacher treated the kids in a way that fit that description. As a contrast, they repeated the experiment with another class. This time, they did just the opposite by describing the kids to the teacher as having learning disabilities because they were a little (or more) mentally slow. In this case, the test performance of the class came down to the level of the negative description. Before the experiment was conducted, both groups of children had been thoroughly tested and were exactly the same. They had exactly the same academic record, capability, and learning profile. Imagine how the absolutely made-up definition and then the continuing effect of the leadership description (also made up) created in the beginning affected the positive future of the “gifted” kids and the eventual future of the “slow” ones.

The power of a definition is pretty simple, but it can be very profound, particularly when it occurs inside a self-contained organization. I concluded (duh) that the merry band of inhabitants in my new battalion were the products of such a definition. That definition I was quickly learning was based on how they behaved and not on how well they operationally performed; this definition created a category that got them a ticket into the “land of misfit toys.” The problem with this segregation was that it didn’t work. All the organization did was to create a substandard definition, develop a set of expectations that matched the definition, and isolate and treat the members in a manner that would prove the substandard definition. Being “special” and being substandard can be very different, and it is a huge boss mistake to automatically connect the two, particularly as they relate to critical performance.

It took a while for it all to sink in, but when it did, I realized that the B-3 boys (all male then) were hiding out in plain sight and having the time of their lives. They could maintain the outside perception of their profile if they would just act goofy enough (but not too goofy), and then the big bosses would continue their sentence (assignment) and the rest of the organization would leave them alone to live in their little self-contained world. Simply, they became very independent by insulating themselves in the definition the organization had made. Sometimes liberation occurs in strange ways.

If the bosses in the organization had effectively and humanely addressed the outspoken and unconventional approach of these characters and leveraged their operational capability and strength in a positive way, they might have created inclusion rather than exclusion. Now, I inherited this group of troops and, at the very same time, had been excluded by the organization as the result of the same process. The day after I was promoted, I was an inhabitant in the organizational “nut house,” even if it was for a completely different reason. I was an occupant just the same. What the big bosses did was develop and then direct a definition and an expectation of me: I was so young that I would be overwhelmed and frustrated by my assignment and would quickly fail. They made me a member of the group, and I quickly learned that it was a lot better to be a participant boss from the inside than a reformer boss from the outside.

The basic boss lesson is simple: Be very careful of constructing a value-laden definition and then a related expectation based on an individual or group until you have really developed a lot of knowledge, experience, and evidence. This is particularly true when the inaccurately defined human or humans have a continuing and permanent (for us) connection to the disapproving boss and the organization. The basic job of a boss is to bring out the best in the workers, and being able to do that begins with being consistently patient, kind, and helpful. Humans and human affairs are very complex. It is a huge mistake when a boss develops and then acts out a simplistic definition of that human complexity. Every person comes with unique angels and demons we describe (in highfalutin management language) as strengths and weaknesses. A functional boss feeds the positive so that it gets bigger and starves the negative so it gets smaller.

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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