Critiquing Others

By Frank Viscuso

There will be times when a firefighter under your command performs at an unacceptable level. This can occur in the firehouse or out in public (which is far worse). Critiquing, when done correctly, falls under the category as constructive criticism. To skillfully critique others, follow this proven format used in the fire service as well as on corporate America.


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1. Critique in private. Unlike praise, which has a greater effect when done in front of others, critiquing should be done in a private setting. If it is a serious matter, the firefighter may want some form of support (such as a union representative) in the room. Otherwise, you should meet with the firefighter one-on-one.

2. Begin on a positive. Remember, at this point you may not know if the firefighter is unaware of the problem, unable to correct the problem, or unwilling to correct the problem. You don’t want to assume the worse. There should be things the firefighter does right; be sure to point them out. Doing so will help the individual to relax and be more open to what you say next.

3. Criticize the act, not the person. There is a difference. If this is a first offense and you immediately criticize the person, you are going to form a hostile working environment. If you want to make your crew fear and dislike you, that’s your prerogative, but don’t lose sight of the fact that one day, you may put your lives on the line for each other. That alone should be enough reason to want to foster a mutually respectful relationship.

4. Clearly explain what you want (and expect).  Clarity is everything. Explain why the firefighter’s actions were wrong, and describe how you would like to see things done differently from here on out. If you have standard operating procedures and department policies, use them as aids. People retain more of what they read than what they hear. Make sure the firefighter leaves the meeting with a clear understanding of what is expected.

5. Develop a solution together and agree on it.  Let firefighters play a part in solving their own problems. This will help them establish a sense of ownership. You probably don’t like being dictated to, and neither do they. Let’s be honest, there are times you will need to do just that – after all, you are the company officer. If this is not one of those times, try working together. You’ll find that most firefighters will respond better to this method.

6. End on a positive note.  You said what you needed to say; there’s no need to belabor the point. End the meeting the way you began it, on a positive note. This will show the firefighter that you are willing to put the incident behind you and start fresh. Again, you will find that most firefighters will appreciate you more for doing so. The results should speak for themselves.

Numbers 2 and 6 are commonly referred to as the “sandwich technique”–placing the performance issue in between two compliments. 

These steps work, but if you find yourself dealing with a firefighter who simply will not change or who has performed in a way that requires stronger action than a critique, consult with your immediate supervisor or legal department regarding what actions you should take.


Frank Viscuso is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and a deputy chief in Kearny, New Jersey. He is the co-creator of FireOpsOnline and the author of six books, including Step Up and Lead. He travels throughout the country teaching about leadership development and team-building. His articles appear in New Jersey Firefighter and Fire Engineering magazines.

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