It’s All About Attitude

By Scott Thompson and Eddie Buchanan

Attitude can be a very powerful influence within an organization. Generally speaking, attitude is a mindset that affects behavior. Regardless of department size, location, or structure, company officers must deal with attitude every time they interact with the “troops.”

Company officers must realize that attitudes, positive or negative, foster similar attitudes and have the potential to make or break the supervisor. Observe any firehouse, anywhere. Chances are it won’t be long before someone brings up the “A” word, generally in a negative context. Organizational attitude is the element of the organization’s culture that reflects the behavioral mindset of the dominant members. Leaders—formal and informal—within the organization have an audience and the potential to strongly influence the attitude of many members within the organization, and the number can grow daily.

THE POWER OF ATTITUDE

In the fire service, individual attitudes and organizational morale are often associated with many “hot topics.” The firehouse environment is a breeding ground for attitudes both good and bad. Shift work, downtime, and the diverse backgrounds and relationships of firefighters all play a role when it comes to attitude. Attitudes impact every aspect of what we do.

Look at what’s causing your accidents and injuries. Skills, knowledge, attitude, training, and experienced supervision (S.K.A.T.E.S.) are critical components of the accident prevention formula. A deficiency in a person’s S.K.A.T.E.S. is often a direct contributor to the cause of the accident or injury.

Safety, service delivery, pride in the organization, brotherhood, morale, and employee retention are just a few human resource-related areas in a fire service organization that can be strongly influenced by the attitudes of the membership or leadership. Be it a firefighter who chooses not to use protective equipment or follow established policies or practices or an engine company that delivers exceptional service, attitude is a factor.

Why is it that some companies train each shift while others don’t train at all? Why do some company officers participate in shift activities while others sit in front of the computer all day playing solitaire? Is it a leadership or time management issue, is it laziness, or is it attitude?

Up and down the chain of command, internal and external of the organization, the chances of being influenced by attitude and the ability to influence by attitude are always present. The impact of attitude on the health of an organization is every bit as important as the impact of health and fitness on a firefighter.

Annual line-of-duty death statistics do not account for accidents or deaths caused by attitudes, but looking at the events that led up to the accident, injury, or fatality, it is often quite obvious that an attitude about safety, the application of policy or accepted practices, was in some way a contributing factor. Attitude is always present, and fire service leaders must always be aware of how words and actions influence the attitudes of those around them.

ORGANIZATIONAL FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE ATTITUDE

Many organizational factors influence attitude. The working environment, disciplinary and promotional practices, rules and regulations, benefits, and activity all in one way or another influence attitude. They can be positive or negative attitude influences. Positive attitude influences motivate, encourage team cohesion, and contribute to firefighter fulfillment—all the while promoting the organization’s vision, mission, and values. They are influences that cause participation, problem solving, mentoring, longevity, and a commitment to excellence by those influencing and being influenced.

Negative attitude influences strain the work group and, if allowed to continue, eventually cause problems throughout the organization. These influences breed mistrust, skepticism, rumors, and a culture of “Let’s do as little as possible and whine about it while we are not doing it.” Many times, these influences involve authority within the organization and an overall disagreement with the way things are being done. If negative influence factors are allowed to exist within the company or firehouse, it becomes difficult and burdensome for company officers to lead and create a positive work environment on a daily basis. Instead of being able to develop those under their supervision, they must focus their attention on keeping the peace and dealing with personnel issues arising from negative attitude influences.

However, all is not lost. Company officers can have a positive impact on attitudes if they understand what determines an individual’s attitude in the workplace. The following are actions that the company officer can take to cultivate positive attitudes.

1. Ensure a nonintimidating work environment.

A common fire service tradition is the copious amounts of ribbing and practical jokes we bestow on our rookies. Now we are in no way suggesting that we should abandon such a rite of passage. What we are saying is that company officers must take responsibility and full accountability for their personnel. This includes some of the nasty pranks and jokes that may befall unsuspecting recruits. Remember, there is no harm in a little fun, but there is a limit to what is acceptable; these boundaries must be well-defined in advance. Sure, there will be some pranks, but company officers are ultimately responsible, even if their crew didn’t let them in on the joke in advance.

Facilitating tolerance and acceptance of diversity is one of the most delicate issues company officers will face. Most officer development programs cover Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s model indicated that people have a basic need to feel safe and accepted to be productive. Poor attitudes and lack of respect for others can greatly affect workplace productivity. People will often take advantage of any slack allowed concerning such issues; company officers must remain vigilant to ensure an attitude that reflects respect to all persons, regardless of their backgrounds. This often proves difficult, particularly when company officers are not typically dominant personalities or “big guys.” Yet, failure to overcome such negative attitudes will quickly sour the overall organizational attitude and possibly undermine progress made in other areas. Stand your ground to ensure a safe workplace, and be prepared to ask for assistance when necessary. This is one area in which company officers can have a huge impact. Avoid favoritism, and don’t let things get out of hand. The younger firefighters count on you to protect them inside and outside the firehouse.

2. Recognize that the fulfillment/enjoyment/satisfaction of your firefighters is important.

Think back to when you first had aspirations of being an officer or a leader in your organization. What was important to you back then? Most seek out a sense of belonging and social acceptance and a chance to excel in the organization (there’s Maslow again). If you were lucky enough to have an officer who understood the impact of fulfillment on attitude back then, odds are you developed as a leader and are having a positive impact on your organization today.

Understanding your personnel’s individual aspirations will help you help them to self-actualize, creating a deep sense of worth and ownership in the organization. If firefighters enjoy working in an urban or suburban environment, what’s the harm of doing what you can to get them that type of assignment? If they enjoy rural water supply systems, assign them accordingly. If they enjoy teaching other firefighters, to the training station or division they go! Sure, some factors will prevent everyone from getting their dream assignment, but do what you can. The point is, don’t overlook what makes your people tick. In reality, you can’t please everyone. However, if you spend all of your time buying into this concept, pretty soon you won’t be pleasing anyone. Good leaders seek out the needs of others and the organizations before their own. Don’t compromise your values, and don’t just give in. Find what makes your people excel and what is most likely to keep them around and wanting to come to work, and then expose them to it every chance you get.

Succession planning—preparing your future leaders—is also important to the future of the organization. Leading within an organization is not about hording all of the information and knowing how to ensure job security; it is about sharing information and explaining the decision-making process. Be sure to fairly assess your personnel and develop them to take your place. This requires a certain level of self-confidence, but it is definitely a strong positive influence on attitude. Look around your department. What shift is producing the most future leaders? Chances are it is the shift with good, confident leadership.

3. Encourage participation.

Participation breeds ownership, and ownership instills pride. Today’s young firefighters expect this. They expect their supervisors to involve them and to seek out suggestions and comments, much different from what past probationary firefighters have expected. Company officers must be smart and aware. They must seek out opportunities for their subordinates and then introduce them to challenges in a positive manner. Results are achieved when team members believe their contributions to the organization are meaningful and appreciated.

As a leader, it is important to know the difference between delegating responsibility and dumping tasks. The company officer plays an important role in this area. By encouraging and recognizing the efforts of subordinates and providing timely feedback on performance, company officers can positively impact their crews’ attitude toward the organization. Ownership and pride are strong positive attitude influences. Those who delegate must pay special attention to setting the parameters and defining expectations when delegating responsibility. Company officers or, worse, chief officers who delegate and then pick the recommendations apart, only to choose their own, can seriously damage attitude and possibly risk losing future participation.

Remember, it’s delegating—not dumping! Delegating responsibility without clearly defining the ground rules sets the person or group up for failure and can result in a negative attitude influence. Communicate clear and specific expectations, and provide feedback on those expectations on a regular basis.

4. Live the brotherhood/sisterhood.

If we expect fire service traditions to be respected and our members to act in accordance with the brotherhood and sisterhood of the American fire service, we must start promoting and cultivating these important organizational elements the minute the new employee or volunteer walks in the door. We cannot expect our people to just fall in line and cherish those things that are important to many of us. After all, it is new to them and they just don’t understand what is expected.

If new firefighters get off on the wrong foot because they do not understand tradition or their responsibility to the brotherhood, then valuable employees risk being written off. Help them see the big picture. Though reality tells us we cannot help everyone, as company officers, don’t we owe it to our subordinates and to the organization to at least try?

What if you were the recruit? Would you want the benefit of the doubt? Like raising kids, you must show them, explain to them, support them, and then build relationships with them. Of course, those with military experience will catch on a little quicker, but generally it doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t expect it to.

5. Practice fair, consistent recognition and disciplinary actions.

The approach to disciplinary action can send a strong message to the organization, good or bad. Fairness and consistency are two phrases commonly associated with discipline. Fire service organizations generally take one of two approaches to the discipline process, proactive or reactive. Proactive organizations are value-driven and have well-defined disciplinary guidelines, have brief but well-thought-out rules and regulations, and focus more on coaching and mentoring than counseling to deal with behavioral issues. Reactive organizations manage by punishment; they are rule- and policy-driven and believe in paper trails, punitive actions, and “threat tactics” to control behavior. Reactive organizations generally have so many rules, regulations, and policies that it is almost impossible for the company officer to remain in compliance throughout the tour.

Although the discipline process is most commonly developed at levels above the company officer, it is very important that the company officer understand the disciplinary process and his role in that process. Most of us dread dealing with personnel issues. The nature of the matter requires us to take a position, and generally this results in a perceived loser and winner. So the question is, how as a company officer can you ensure that your role in the disciplinary action is fair, consistent, and in line with the organization’s values?

The first thing company officers should ask themselves is, “Am I doing the right thing? Second, “Is my obligation as a company officer to the individual involved or to the organization?” Answering these two questions—along with a thorough knowledge of rules, policies, and procedures and the organization’s value system—will provide you with the necessary mindset to approach the situation.

It is critical, yet sometimes difficult, to remove emotions from the equation. In reality, most fire departments issue several “Get out of jail free” cards. What this means is that, in most organizations, there is quite often tolerance for many minor policy, procedural, and safety violations. These infractions are generally handled within the company, and more times than not the situation is resolved. However, on those occasions in which the infractions are of a more serious nature, or the problem is consistent, the company officer must step in and take it to the next level.

If you practice good leadership, stick to your personal and professional values, and understand the relevant facts, you will more than likely come out okay. Remember, what is right for the organization and what is perceived as right by the troops is often as different as night and day. Just do the right thing, nothing more or nothing less.

6. Make decisions and communicate.

Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini once said, referring to the Phoenix approach to incident command, that they flew around making boxes and divisions until eventually they flew up their own backside. There is a lot of truth in this statement for many departments! There are those departments that, rather than numbering their policies and regulations, can name them by the firefighter who screwed something up, prompting the need for the regulation. Then there are those company officers who lead by e-mail or, even worse, by pager. And, of course, we can’t forget the firehouse lawyers. At what point did the fire service do away with the personal directive issued by the chief or company officer?

Some seem to believe that everything must be written in a formal policy to be enforceable. Such an approach causes organizations to become quickly mired down in indecision and “he said/she said.” Remember, your job as company officer is to make decisions. Sure, we have regulations and policies to guide those decisions, but sooner or later, we have to simply make a choice of what is right or best for the organization. Without this ability to make such decisions, our organizations will become paralyzed. Remember that work is personal. It requires one-on-one interaction and face-to-face supervision and leadership. This is sometimes messy and uncomfortable but, simply put, it is the right thing to do. Be forewarned, this will cause us to get out of the office and interact with our troops. We must look people in the eye and tell them what we think—an approach common in years past but becoming more scarce among up-and-coming “leaders.”

Use established rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures as your “playbook.” Let your troops know where you stand with regard to directives. We know that, in reality, you can pick and choose which ones you will and which ones you will not enforce. As the company officer, just because you don’t agree with the directive doesn’t mean you don’t have to enforce it. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the organization and providing service.

7. Do your part for the promotional practices.

In many career departments, the process used to promote quite often becomes a negative attitude influence. This can also occur in volunteer organizations where elections take place or where a board of directors chooses the organization’s officers. Whether it is the process that is in question or the candidates who are chosen, unclear, secretive promotional processes, no matter how fair, lend themselves to suspicion. Clear informative processes with organizational involvement and specific expectations on what is required to succeed can be a very positive attitude influence.

Although company officers may not have a lot of input in this area, they can provide positive attitude influences by understanding the process so they can answer subordinates’ questions and provide explanations when needed. Second, we must always remember that company officers are great reinforcement and change agents. If company officers are not onboard with the process, how can they expect their people to be motivated to participate in the process?

Ask questions, understand the process, and then do what you can to help those under your supervision to succeed. Allow time for studying, set up practice sessions, and mentor and encourage others under your supervision to do the same. When promotions do occur, highlight the positives of the process, and qualify your concerns. Focus on solutions, not fault. Taking this position will pay great dividends to you as a leader.

8. Walk the talk.

Ask yourself why you promoted or why you wanted to promote. How does your answer sound? If a subordinate asked you the same question, what message would your answer send to that person? Would it be a message of inspiration and motivation or a message that would immediately lead him to question your motives? You may never be asked this question directly, but your actions send the message daily.

Next, think about your personal and professional values—those you are willing to defend to the end. Taking the time to list your top five or 10 personal and professional values is a very important exercise for leaders. If you can’t identify what is important to you, how can you lead and make value-based decisions that are consistent and correct?

Tons of books are available on leadership. Some apply to the fire officer, but many don’t. Leadership and attitude go hand in hand. A strong leader can shape the attitudes of not only subordinates but also, many times, his peers and supervisors. Strong, value-based fire service leaders are those who are not afraid to go against the firehouse grain. Quick to squash rumors and redirect negative, nonproductive comments, good fire service leaders understand the big picture and their role in the organization. They live their value system and help promote the organization’s values and mission. They do this not because they are conforming to the system, but rather because they have taken the time to become informed on the facts and they understand that they can use their circle of influence to make things better or worse. They encourage, motivate, and continually display signs of loyalty to their work group and their organization.

Think about good, successful officers in your organization. They are easy to spot. They are the ones everyone wants to work for. They are the ones who get promoted, volunteer for extra duties, get involved with committees, and provide feedback (good or bad). They are the ones who make you feel good about the job you are doing.

9. Don’t just keep them busy—keep them active.

No one can argue that the busiest companies are generally the happiest. As the company officer, there is not a lot you can do about call volume. What you can do is plan and lead well-thought-out and meaningful activities in the firehouse and first-alarm district. Your experience is tremendously valuable, and effective company officers are always looking for ways to pass along knowledge and experience to younger, less experienced firefighters.

Time management and planning skills are becoming more and more important to company officers. Think about how you plan activities for those you supervise. Do you plan a year, six months, or a week in advance or at the start of the tour? Do you use time wisely? Don’t fill the tour with a lot of busy work. Instead, get everyone involved and develop a training plan that includes developing new skills as well as maintaining old ones.

Is there a lot of new construction in your district? If so, get in the rig, go look at it, and talk about what you will do if it catches fire at 2 a.m. on the coldest night of the year. Practice with equipment, and encourage firefighters to not only be familiar with their equipment but also master it. Instill pride, and explain why it is important that the rig, equipment, and station be clean and in good repair. Make sure that the person on the mop knows that his job is just as important as yours.

10. Put benefits into perspective.

We have all seen the studies that espouse benefits as a short-term motivator, and although benefits may not be directly linked to good or bad attitudes, they are certainly a catalyst for both. We have seen firefighters in very well paid departments with terrible morale and very negative attitudes. At the same time, we have seen firefighters at the low end of the benefit scale with a tremendous amount of pride in their organization and very positive attitudes. In both cases, benefits are always a factor. They can make a bad place worse, giving firefighters another reason to have bad attitudes.

It is important for the company officer to help those under his command see the big picture. Everyone in the organization should have some knowledge of the organization’s budget and budget process. The company officer must be able to provide accurate information on how budget decisions are made so that he can educate the troops. Doing this will alleviate a lot of frustration, especially during periods of budget reductions.

The company officer must be careful not to add fuel to the fire because of his lack of budget knowledge. If the budget is viewed as a secret document, and input is seldom requested, then chances are leadership problems exist and you will not have to look very far to find other negative attitude influences.

By simply being conscious of how attitude influences almost every aspect of what we do, we can start to improve our organizations at a grass-roots level. Will some say this is all hocus-pocus? Sure! But at the end of the day, successful organizations have found that attitude plays a large role in inspiring employees or volunteers to take pride in and ownership of their organization. Becoming aware of how your individual attitude is contagious and how you can influence the overall attitude of the organization is key to achieving high levels of firefighter satisfaction and retention—and it didn’t cost you a dime out of your budget!

SCOTT THOMPSON has more than 20 years of fire service experience and is a division chief with the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. He is a master firefighter and master fire instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection and has been a Hands-On Training instructor at FDIC and FDIC West. He teaches at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and at the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency administration and planning and is a certified public manager.

EDDIE BUCHANAN began his fire service career in 1982 and serves as a division chief with Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS. He is the author of Volunteer Training Officer’s Handbook (Fire Engineering, 2003) and serves on the Board of Directors for the Volunteer/Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He lectures regularly on training issues throughout the country and serves as an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. He has been a Hands-On Training instructor and speaker at FDIC.

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