BY FRANK VISCUSO
Have you ever heard a co-worker say, “I just don’t care anymore”? Have you ever said that yourself? How about this: “I’m just going to do the minimum and nothing else.”
From time to time, workplace morale decreases, people feel underappreciated, and the team becomes consumed with drama. Add bad training habits and poorly maintained equipment to the mix, and you have the perfect storm of team dysfunction. It’s at times like this that you will often hear people say, “I just don’t care anymore,” or “I’m just going to do the minimum.”
Unfortunately, drama is more common within the fire service than most of us would care to admit. One of the primary causes of drama is a team’s loss of focus on the purpose of its mission. Teams with clearly defined goals do not have time for drama; they are too busy making progress.
Four Stages of Team Development
Every firefighter should be familiar with the four stages of fire development: incipient, growth, fully developed, and decay. These are the same four stages of team development. A team in the decay stage is easy to identify-team members are stagnant, unproductive, and great at finding problems but not at solving them.
Since the decay stage is the most dangerous one for a team, let’s address this problem from the top and consider how a leader should deal with this situation. Leaders must understand that the level at which their teams operate directly reflects their leadership ability, or lack thereof. The first ingredients of team success are simple; from the top, they are described by words like respect; appreciation; example; strength; and, most important of all, trust. Without trust, you don’t have much to work with.
After establishing the right team development environment in which people feel appreciated, a leader needs a strategy. Strategy and tactics are two words every firefighter must know and understand. Without sound strategy and tactics, we could never achieve our goals at a structure fire (or any incident, for that matter). This article focuses less on tactics and more on strategy.
A strategy is a high-level plan, usually implemented by the team leader, which is devised to achieve one or more goals under uncertain conditions and with limited resources. It is not about choosing one plan and sticking to it no matter what. It’s more about attaining and maintaining a position of advantage and putting your team members in a position where they can adapt if needed and still accomplish your overall goals.
Seven Strategic Steps
It is difficult to generalize strategy without knowing what stage your team is currently in or what you are trying to accomplish, but you should be aware of some absolutes. Take the following seven strategic steps, for example. Implementing these strategies will elevate the level at which your team operates and help you create momentum.
1. Emphasize Group Recognition
It is blatantly obvious to others when a team leader plays favorites or treats some people unfairly. Focus on distributing credit to the team, not just one or two members, It’s acceptable to mention and point out the great behavior and accomplishments of individuals because it shows others what you are looking for, but don’t forget about the contributions of the other members.
2. Reward Excellence
There is a difference between a base hit and a grand slam. Celebrate all victories, but when your team hits it out of the park, make a big deal out of it. Do it in a way that would encourage them to maintain the high level of efficiency with which they achieved those results. When excellence goes unrewarded, people become frustrated and start to look for appreciation elsewhere. Don’t underestimate the power of words like “thank you” or “great job.” I’ve known plenty of people who left good paying jobs and went to work for another organization primarily because they didn’t feel appreciated.
3. Encourage and Promote Clarity
The team needs to know what you expect of them and what the ultimate goal is. Leaders must be transparent and involve others in goal setting and decision making. When everyone pitches in from the early stages, they become connected to the mission. When your team members are on the same page, it’s easier to cultivate ownership mentality, which will help you will move closer to the fully developed stage, which is where we should all strive to be.
4. Mitigate Conflict
Rumor, gossip, cliques, and secret meetings can destroy a team. Don’t allow conflict to grow to the point where it divides team members. Stop it early. Remember, when a team is consumed with drama, it’s a sign that they are no longer connected to the goal. They will begin spending their time and energy on the wrong activities, and conflict will rear its ugly head. Conflict resolution is a skill that must be learned, but stopping it before it gets out of control is an art that will benefit your team in more ways than you could ever imagine.
5. Properly Equip the Team
When people are assigned a task or job, they will also need education, time, resources, and tools to get the job done. This is sometimes tricky, because the strategy is conditioned by limited resources, which requires training, planning ahead, and thinking. Establish an environment in which team members understand they can use whatever resources are available without distractions. Give them permission to act. If mistakes are made, learn from them, revise your strategy, and improve.
6. Fix What’s Broken
When you make a mistake the first time, it’s a learning experience; the second time, it’s a choice. Your goal should always be to find the “one best way” to accomplish a specific task. To do this, you need to break old habits and try approaching tasks from different angles. If a certain tactic did not produce the results you want, change it. Don’t think you have to figure it all out by yourself. Contrary to popular belief, experience is not the best teacher. In our industry especially, the best teacher is other people’s experiences. There have been too many near misses, major injuries, and fatalities for us not to learn from them. The greatest way we can honor our fallen brothers and sisters is by learning from them.
7. Cross Train
A common mistake many organizations make is to not develop their people. Although it’s great to master one or two tasks, it is common in smaller fire departments (which is most of America) for a ladder company member to suddenly be assigned what would be considered an engine company duty and vice versa. Because of this, it is essential that you train each member of your team to do a variety of tasks. By doing so, your team members will become interchangeable. If one person isn’t available on a specific day to accomplish a specific task, you will be able to use another person to fulfill that responsibility. You still want to allow individuals to master specific skills, run in their lanes, and work with their strengths, but promoting interchangeability will only benefit your team in the long run.
If your team is stagnant and heading toward the decay stage, it’s not too late to turn them around. The first step is to be honest with yourself when assessing which stage your team is in because you cannot fix what you refuse to acknowledge. It would also benefit you to ensure that your team members know that you value them. We are soldiers in battle, and without respect for each other we will never operate as well as a uniformed fire company should. Once that is understood, begin implementing the seven strategic steps above. Doing so will help you create momentum and develop your organizational culture by design rather than default.
FRANK VISCUSO is a deputy chief with the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department and a 25-year veteran of the fire service. He is the author of six books, including Step Up and Lead and Step Up Your Teamwork. Viscuso travels the country speaking about leadership, teamwork, officer development, and customer service.
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