By Dan Kerrigan
From firefighter to fire chief, everyone in the fire service is tasked with making decisions at one point or another. Some decisions are routine, even mundane, others are urgent or critical, and many fall somewhere in between. Determining the time and energy that you should give to a decision is critical, and there are many models out there to help you with this process.
The Vroom-Yetton Contingency Model, developed by Victor Vroom and Phillip Yetton (with additional collaboration by Arthur Jago) bases decision making on situational leadership that can be used by just about anyone, regardless of rank. In other words, it suggests that the best way to make a decision is to base it on the current situation or problem; not the personal traits or style of the decision maker. So, let’s review some basic information about leadership styles, strengths, and weakness; look at the key elements of the model; and consider some examples for practical application.
Style, Strengths, and Weaknesses
Many of us are familiar with terms “autocratic,” “democratic,” and “laisses-faire” when thinking of an individual’s overall approach to leadership and decision making. Although these terms suggest “method,” they also allude to personality traits and characteristics. Being one-dimensional in this sense limits our creativity and hampers innovation; it also affects the level of trust and loyalty your followers have in you. Consider your current methodology, and think about how it may be affecting those around you. What is your “go-to” style? What have you learned from past supervisors? Did their style motivate others? Create discord? Did it unite or divide?
Regardless of our decision-making approach, we all have strengths and weaknesses. Although we strive to improve on our weaknesses, it is equally important that we acknowledge our strengths and remember that they are what have fostered our successes thus far. We should never overcompensate for a personal weakness at the expense of what we do well. In terms of decision making, the Vroom-Yetton process suggests that being autocratic, seeking advice, considering alternative approaches before a decision is made, briefing a group on an issue, and allowing that group to develop the solution without forcing your own ideas are all important at times. In situational decision-making, your style might be a strength in one situation and a weakness in another. This model helps to bridge that gap and enhance your ability to adapt to different challenges.
There are seven questions Vroom and Yetton developed to help us paint a mental picture of the overall effect our decisions will have on the organization and, more importantly, our greatest assets: our members. The seven questions follow:
1. Is there a quality requirement? (i.e, is the nature of the solution critical)?
2. Do I have enough information to make the decision?
3. Is it a structured problem; are there alternatives?
4. How critical is subordinate acceptance to the outcome or implementation?
5. Would my subordinates accept my decision if I make it myself?
6. Do my subordinates have a personal stake in the solution?
7. Will there be conflict among subordinates when trying to reach a solution?
Figure 1 shows the decision tree and the paths associated with the answers to these questions. With the answer to each, the Vroom-Yetton model guides you closer to your objective.
Figure 1. The Vroom-Yetton Decision Tree (click to enlarge.)
Figure courtesy of S. Babou.
The Vroom-Yetton model identifies five possible decision-making styles that suggest varying personal involvement from “completely autocratic” to “acceptance without direct influence.” By honestly answering the seven questions above, you will be directed toward one of these decision-making methods:
- Autocratic Type 1 (AI) – The leader makes the decision alone.
- Autocratic Type 2 (AII) – The leader collects information from some followers then makes decision alone.
- Consultative Type 1 (CI) – The leader shares the problem to relevant followers individually, then makes the decision alone after hearing individual input.
- Consultative Type II (CII) – The leader shares the problem to relevant followers as a group, then makes the decision alone after hearing group input and discussion.
- Group-Based Type II (GII) – The leader presents the problem to followers as a group and seeks ideas from them through brainstorming. The leader accepts the decision by the group without forcing his idea.
How does your current style fit in to the Vroom-Yetton decision making model? Why does it fit? How will your decisions benefit the organization and its members? What other examples can you think of that apply to your organization? Following are some examples for you to consider. After reading each one, apply them to your organization and think about the approach you would take in making the decisions. Consider reviewing this information with your staff.
- Your department’s union representative has approached you with a request that you approve the seasonal use of short uniform pants as an addition to the existing uniform policy. What decision-making style will drive this decision?
- You want to institute a higher education requirement for promotion. How do you go about implementing this policy, and what levels of education will be required for each officer level?
- Your personnel have been engaged in aggressive interior firefighting operations for 15 minutes since your arrival. As the incident commander, you have not seen any obvious signs of improving conditions. You are concerned that worsening conditions will place your personnel at greater risk; however, your interior officer, an experienced and trusted captain, is insisting that personnel are making good progress. How do you decide what do next?
- As the station captain, you have been assigned to establish a testing and evaluation process to determine which hose load is best suited for the front bumper line on all department engines. What process would you consider to evaluate your options? Who do you involve, and who makes the final recommendation?
- You have been directed to reduce your overall operating budget by five percent for the coming fiscal year. The current collective bargaining agreement is valid for another two years, and you are not permitted to make changes to it. What decision-making approach do you use to find the cuts?
Two old sayings come to mind when I think about flawed decision-making: “Rank has its privileges” (RHIP), and “rest in peace” (RIP). If your approach to decision making is not flexible based on the situation, you are but one letter removed from loss of respect and lost confidence among your subordinates. Top put it another way, “May your ability to lead effectively rest in peace.” We all know that respect in the fire service is difficult to earn and easy to lose. Using a sound decision-making model to develop a consistent approach to handling your organization’s challenges will greatly enhance your followers’ willingness to listen and work with you in a positive, respectful manner. Moreover, it will allow your subordinates to feel like they are a part of the successes of the organization.
Lao Tzu said that a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say “we did it ourselves.” It’s all about what path you follow. The Vroom-Yetton model provides an approach that can help keep you on the path to success.
Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.