How to Kill Morale

This wonderful profession has often been referred to as the “greatest job on Earth.” Every time I ask the firefighters and officers who attend my leadership seminars if they agree with that statement, at least 85 percent of the hands in the room go up. Most polls in America rank firefighting among the top professions in regard to career satisfaction; many polls rate it #1. Despite that, I find it interesting that in recent years I have come across a growing number of firefighters who seem bitter, frustrated, and sometimes disgruntled to a point where they begin counting the days to retirement months and sometimes years before they are eligible.


In one organization, an estimated 15 percent of its members—most of its veteran core—left the job before they had intended. One member told me that his team was consumed with drama; many of his coworkers regularly made statements like “I don’t care anymore” and “I give up.” He also stressed the point that the brotherhood was dead. As I dug deeper into this with him, it became abundantly clear that his frustration had little to do with a “lack of brotherhood” and everything to do with poor leadership. This individual eventually admitted that he agreed that firefighting was the greatest job on Earth but, at the same time, he was still counting the days until he could leave what he described as a toxic “soul-killing” environment. During a group discussion later that day, it became abundantly clear that most of the members of that organization loved the job but attributed their discontent to failed leadership and poor management.

Let that sink in for a moment: They love the job but want to leave it. My conversation with these firefighters reminded me of a Forbes article I once read, “People Leave Managers, Not Companies.”1 The article validated a recent statistic from Gallup, Inc. (an American research-based, global performance-management consulting company), which reported that 75 percent of workers who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their bosses and not because of the position itself.

Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that my main objective is to provide aspiring officers and people in influential positions with the tools and ideas they will need to help them create healthy working environments in which their team can thrive. For that reason, most of the articles and books I have written have a positive tone. For this article, however, I would like to take a different approach because I want everyone to remember that firefighting truly is the greatest job on Earth. But, to paraphrase my disgruntled colleague, “Dysfunctional leadership can kill the soul of a fire department.”

Preventing a Toxic Culture

Since many of you are officers or aspire to be, following are eight morale-killing actions you should avoid to prevent a toxic culture that inevitably stems from bad leadership.

Don’t play favorites. An organization can’t run with two sets of rules. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone when a person in a leadership position plays favorites. To earn the respect of your team members, it is essential that you be as consistent with praise and promotion as you are with discipline. You may have attended high school with someone, but that doesn’t mean that individual should be allowed to operate under a different set of rules than the other members in the organization.

Don’t micromanage. Imagine an army colonel micromanaging every single move that the troops make during training evolutions. When it comes time to perform, will those individuals be able to think on their feet and make life-or-death decisions without someone dictating their every move? Micromanaging is the quickest way to stifle your team members’ initiative. Let them make their own decisions—and mistakes—so they can learn how to navigate through them. Firefighters who are hesitant to make decisions on the fireground because their boss is always harshly criticizing them will eventually stop making any decisions at all.

As a leader, your best option is to find out what talent, skills, and abilities each of your team members brings to the table; put them in their lane; and let them run without getting in their way. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish when you use your best resources—your people—properly.

Don’t have unproductive/unnecessary meetings. Have you ever sat in a two-hour meeting and realized that you were discussing the same things discussed in last week’s two-hour meeting? Even worse, have you ever sat through an excessively long meeting and wondered what the point of the meeting was in the first place? I have attended many meetings that could have been cut to a tenth of the time, which would have enabled everyone in the room to be more productive in the field. Many in leadership positions don’t realize that too many unproductive, unnecessary meetings do very little for the organization and ultimately send members the message that you don’t trust their decision-making capabilities.


Don’t give “busy work.” Why would a manager give his team members unnecessary assignments that don’t help the team achieve a worthwhile goal? The only explanation that makes even the slightest bit of sense is that unhappy people want happy people to be unhappy. One way they accomplish this is by distributing “busy work” to their subordinates instead of meaningful assignments that fall in line with the organization’s goals and overall mission. The head of an organization may have other reasons for doing this, but the consensus among the troops is usually that their boss intends to make them unhappy and frustrated by eliminating what little downtime they may have had during their shift. No one will argue that delegating and distributing work are important, but make the assignments meaningful.

Don’t hold grudges. I don’t typically generalize, but if you think about it, people harboring resentment and holding grudges for years are small-minded. Few things can create more problems in the workplace than small-minded people who acquire a little bit of power. Such people may use their position to punish people they don’t like. If you tend to hold grudges, I advise you, don’t live in the past. You have the right to grow, to change, and to improve, and so does everyone else. None of us is obliged to be the same person today that we were yesterday. Don’t build a wall between you and your people; build a bridge. Help them set goals, become better versions of themselves, and don’t ever forget that you all play for the same team.

Don’t create a stressful working environment. Firefighting is one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. Firefighters inherit risk, and with risk comes stress. The worst thing we could do is create more, unnecessary stress from within. We are often our own worst enemy when it comes to this. Take social media, for example. If there’s one thing Web sites like Facebook have shown us, it’s that everyone is an expert at fighting the fires they were not at. The world is full of critics; and as harsh as people outside your organization can be, nothing kills morale more than stress from within the organization. High-ranking officers need to support their team members and provide them with the training, tools, time, and resources for success. They shouldn’t ignore all the good their subordinates do and focus solely on the mistakes. According to a recent article on,2 Google spent years studying effective teams to see what factors led to strong team performance; one stood out above all the rest: psychological safety. In other words, great teams thrive on trust. Unnecessary pressure from a boss makes it difficult for people in the workplace to focus on solving internal and external problems, which can result in stress-related health issues for team members and the inevitable collapse of an organization.

Don’t use discipline as a fear tactic. Yes, there are times when a subordinate must be disciplined. For example, when the individual is unwilling to do his job, you must take disciplinary action. If an individual’s actions are not illegal, immoral, or unethical, however, disciplining someone rarely provides a beneficial outcome. An autocratic management style and a history of retaliatory behavior can foster a demoralizing culture. Discipline as a fear tactic is not a motivator. Use discipline to correct behavior, not chastise. Coach John Wooden once said, “Discipline of others isn’t punishment. You discipline to help, to improve, to correct, to prevent, not to punish, humiliate or retaliate.”

Don’t disrespect your team members. Never forget that you are all on the same team, and if you do your job correctly, you should also be on the same mission. Give your subordinates a seat at the table and set goals together. Treat everyone with respect. Like you, they have challenges, concerns, and frustrations in their personal lives. They don’t need to feel deflated on their commute to work because they are dreading the thought of spending another 24 hours with a bad boss. Successful teamwork begins with one word—respect.

Be aware of what’s happening in your team members’ lives, and show empathy for those under your command who are dealing with personal issues. Learn their spouses’ and children’s names. Let them know you sincerely appreciate the effort they put into a good day of work. Don’t think for a minute that you can disrespect your subordinates and keep their respect. Respect must be earned; but if you don’t give it, you’ll never get it in return.

You have probably heard the saying, “You can learn just as much from a bad leader as you can from a good one.” That’s as true a statement as I have ever heard. Unfortunately, most “bad” leaders don’t know that they are bad, which is why it’s so important for us to understand how our actions can negatively affect those under our charge. Don’t do the eight things listed in this article unless you want draw the minimum performance out of your team members and destroy your organization’s morale. If you are guilty of doing some of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. We are all guilty of doing the wrong thing until we learn what the right thing is. To paraphrase an old proverb, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today. Don’t dwell in the past, and don’t procrastinate any longer. Take corrective action today.

These suggestions do not mean that leaders in our industry should not set a higher standard for individual and team performance. On the contrary, we need to set the bar as high as possible. Our communities deserve the best; that is the reason we need to train daily, but high expectations are not the same as unrealistic expectations. Perhaps Richard Branson said it best, “Train people well enough that they can leave, but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”


1. Lipman, Victor. “People Leave Managers, Not Companies.” (August 4, 2015). Forbes.

2. Bariso, Justin. “Google Spent Years Studying Effective Teams. This Single Quality Contributed Most to Their Success.”Inc.

FRANK VISCUSO served for 27 years as a career firefighter before retiring at the rank of deputy chief. He is a leadership and team building specialist, an international speaker, a podcast host, and the author of Step Up and Lead and Step Up Your Teamwork.

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