Expectations and Boundaries


I am fortunate that I get to interact with firefighters in seminars and meetings and listen to how they feel about their work, their career, and their organization. I have consistently learned more in my time with them than they learned from any “education” they received from me. Typically, at the end of one of our sessions, I leave with two or three pages of notes I recorded from our conversations; many times, what shows up in this column emerges from those notes.

During the long time I have been doing training and hanging out with the troops, I have changed my basic approach. When I first started, I was very instructor intensive (in fact, I was very intensive in many ways). I guess I thought of myself as a teacher then. As I have continued to interact with everyone, I discovered that although I get to sit in front (teacher’s spot), everyone, including me, will learn a ton more from a conversation than from a lecture. I suppose this shift in my approach was fairly predictable because in an earlier time I was teaching technical/tactical stuff. I used to use a great deal of very visual teaching materials; they work best when describing and teaching how to lay hose and raise ladders.

Now, my sessions involve “softer things” like customer service, functional boss behaviors, and how organizational behavior connects to human behavior. It makes sense, and it is smart. If you want to learn more about hose and ladder practices, you should get a young firefighter who does it all the time to teach you. I genuinely admire and am really still interested in tactical techniques, but the last hose I was directly involved with was cotton and double jacketed, and the last ladder I raised was wooden (incidentally, both of those items are in the equipment inventory of my restored “‘boyhood” 1952 Mack).

The “Chain Saw Dilemma”

As I have gone along as more of a student than a teacher, it’s probably natural and predictable that I developed an interest in more human-centered organizational dynamics, particularly relating to how effectively workers operate and are managed by their bosses inside the context of their organization.

In one of the recent sessions with a group of firefighters who were on just about every level from newbies to department chiefs, the subject of expectations dominated the conversation. Talking about the details and dynamics of what is expected is a fairly normal topic when discussing how we interact within the organizational structure (chain of command). Wherever we are (level/stage/age) within the system, we have a set of our own very personal expectations and experiences about those above, below, and across from us-these expectations are very natural and predictable.

Lately in our monthly “magazine meeting,” we have been talking about the topic of how boundaries occur in a fire department (or really anywhere). As I listened to the group talking about expectations, it occurred to me that both subjects (boundaries/expectations) are related because they connect to each other within just about every process and relationship that occurs. Sometimes that connection is subtle; other times, it is explicit. It can be rational, or it can be acted out very emotionally. Sometimes the two can connect because of principle or preference. I tried to think of an example to present here. One that occurs in just about every session is the “chain saw dilemma.”

In most classes when we go around the room and the discussion gets warmed up, I will ask the group what sorts of challenges they are facing in their job. Often, when we get to the first somewhat older, very experienced, alpha male, he would forcefully comment on the younger generation of firefighters with whom he is working. He would say something like, “They are very electronically oriented (and skillful), but those ‘kids’ are not very vocationally experienced and are not at all ‘tool savvy.'” I generally ask, “What does that mean?” It is amazing how often the answer blurted out (the expectation) is, “These kids can’t even start a chain saw!” Then follows an interesting discussion that generally concludes with the older guy telling the younger guy about a high and a low chain saw IQ.

Generally, the older people say when they came on the job, most had worked in construction and brought with them building trade vocational skills that included using tools. What they say is basically (and historically) true, but my role is to keep the class discussion going, so I ask, “So what?” This cranks up the expectation/boundary conversation. Sometimes, if I’m feeling mischievous, I will say that if using a chain saw is an employment deal breaker, we should recruit lumberjacks because they can cut a piece of birthday cake with a power saw and not even disrupt the candles. Obviously, the older guy in class is using the chain saw to symbolically illustrate some of the current generation-gap dynamics in our occupation. The basis of that gap involves conflicting expectations on both sides.

“Universal” Expectations

As the discussion continues, the chain saw becomes less of an issue because the group will collectively conclude that experienced people should teach the young people whatever they need to know to be safe and effective. We should select kids whose mothers socialized them to be nice (very few Moms teach Junior to start/use a chain saw). Once they come on the job, we can teach them how to use the tools of our trade; and although our tools will always be critical to our job, we veterans probably will face a bigger challenge developing our computer capabilities than cutting a cake with a chain saw. Maybe, our salvation will be in turning the tables-have the younger members teach the older members. In fact, I can personally relate to the young people because although I probably signed the requisitions to buy a ton of chain saws, I have never touched a chain saw (my era = pickhead axes)-and I live in the desert, not the forest, so I guess in that aspect, I am as disabled as today’s youth.

As the class progresses, we drill down to the standard expectations humans on every level within the organization have relating to what they need to be personally effective. I have listened to many of these conversations and have concluded from these verbal free-for-alls that all of us have pretty much the following expectations as workers within an organization:

  • I want to know what’s going on.
  • I want a piece of the action.
  • I want someone to care about me.

The three are not complicated to express, but they can be pretty challenging to achieve.

I Want to Know What’s Going On

This basically involves organizational information management and interaction. Everyone has the need to be communicated with; the amount of communication needed varies according to the individual’s personality. I learned over time that each person’s communication expectation relates to the amount (of information) and the timing of it-how much information/how soon? Some folks are high maintenance; they need a lot to be effective, and they need it early in the process of whatever is going on. Others are a lot more relaxed about their personal communication comfort level; this variation probably relates to their level of security (or insecurity). I will leave that explanation to some clinician, but as an old boss, I figured out that I had better somehow fit into and meet the scale of the personal need for communications and that the system had better communicate up to the level that meets the needs of that person or place in the organization. This communication-intensive boss function is critical because maintaining an effective level of personal and positional awareness is directly connected to the message workers receive (on their level) of how valuable each is to the organization. How well a leader uses the overall information interaction as a two-way process to encourage workers to give that boss feedback is directly connected to how skillful that boss is in extending relevant information, creating a conversation, and then listening to the worker’s response.

Filling this information need was critical because if that person was not comfortable with his awareness of what was now going on and what the plan was for the future, we were all at a significant and consistent disadvantage of bringing out the best in that person or part of the organization. This is a major ongoing, never-goes-away leadership function that a boss must pay attention to. The problem is reciprocal because the worker on the receiving end and the boss on the sending end are both at a significant disadvantage when the process is out of balance. The worker suffers an effectiveness problem when not effectively connected with communication from above about organizational issues. The boss is at an even bigger disadvantage if he somehow gets separated from communications about the status of the work from the worker, who is the closest to our customer. The boss has a major responsibility to create and maintain an ongoing organizational process for worker communication and to engage in that process. Simply, the boss must go first.

I Want a Piece of the Action

This is an interesting one that relates to everyone having the encouragement and support to control their own career. We are at a distinct disadvantage when we have the feeling that our performance and behavior have no effect on our job/career. That out-of-control effect can relate to our security, success, or approval. We are well-adjusted when we operate in the middle of an organizational scale that has dependence on one extreme end and independence on the other. The middle of the scale is interdependent, where that person can use organizational resources to produce and control his capability and effort on the job and the job (organization) encourages and supports that effort.

Getting your “piece of the action” is regulated by how skillful you are in operating along the scale. Sometimes the situation requires that you operate in an empowered way and become independent; other times, the situation is very severe, and you will require exceptional support. Therefore, you are sheltered by and are dependent on the overall capability of the organization. During normal times, a well-adjusted person returns to his normal interdependent spot in the middle. This flexibility requirement is necessary from the very beginning of your career to the very end because you are always a member of some team. Team effectiveness depends on a collective combination of each member’s performing his part in a balanced way that supports the other team members doing their part (synergy). Good bosses must create and support operating along the dependence scale to teach, support, control, and commend this collective effort process.

I Want Someone to Care About Me

This is the most critical standard and consistent expectation. This caring relates to the inside and outside of the organization. We are in business to deliver service to Mrs. Smith. What she remembers is that we care about her because we are quick, effective, and nice. This is how we prove we care, and this is why she trusts us, depends on us, and admires us. Exactly the same process occurs inside our organization-only, internally, it occurs between the bosses and the workers. A critical reality is that what we do on the inside gets delivered on the outside.

A major way the organization extends a caring connection to its workers is by continually investing in supportive, positive bosses who create development and maintenance programs that increase everyone’s personal and positional competence. This capability is a big deal in the ongoing discussion about the capability of a boss along the vertical scale (hierarchy) of leadership effectiveness. The ability of that boss to manage organizational resources in a way that improves the performance and the positive behavior of the individuals and their teams directly increases the personal respect they receive. When this occurs, that person brings that legitimate performance-based respect to this team, and that increases everyone’s collective capability = synergy. This is what bringing out the best really means.

When you write all this positive stuff down, it can begin to sound like just another smiley face, rah-rah program based on some snappy bumper sticker slogan. Developing a system that can create long-term communication, inclusion, and caring is on the most difficult end of the management scale. Doing this requires bosses and workers who are fully grown and committed to the mission of their fire department and whose resilience will direct them to never give up. Leaders on every level who do this create the vision, and then the action, that leads to positive performance and authentic continuous improvement. This is where positive expectations create the leading edge of a boundary that defines the (+ or -) environment of the organization.


Just the word “boundary” creates the impression that the system is sending a restrictive message about something negative. Sometimes that is exactly how a boundary attempts to keep us safe by our stopping at red lights, not breathing smoke, staying out of the thermal flow path, and lots of other very painful/fatal things that can happen to us if we do not acknowledge and respect the risk and respond to that boundary. The negative ones are critical, and those boundaries have a hard edge. These are the Nos. There are many more positive ones because if we are to be effective, we must live in the land of Yes. We are effective if we can meet the expectations of exceptional, empowered workers doing a very difficult and dangerous job; provide high standards of customer care; and navigate a challenging and, many times, frustrating internal and external political system.

Doing this on the boss end is difficult and requires smart, sensible, patient leaders. Telling young firefighters they are somehow substandard because they lack skill in using a chain saw is dysfunctional, mean-spirited, and dumb. Those young people will remember that negative interaction for the rest of their career. The chain saw “expert” just wasted an opportunity to welcome brand new firefighters in a positive way to a terrific, life-long occupation and instead created hurt feelings that will last the rest of that kid’s career. Sometimes we shoot a high-caliber bullet into the center of our foot when we create a negative relationship boundary based on some goofy personal expectation.

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

More Boundary Management
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  • ALAN BRUNACINI  was a fire service author and speaker, and a longtime contributor to Fire Engineering . He and his sons owned the fire service Web site bshifter.com. He passed away in 2017 .

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