BY TIM HOLMAN
One of the most significant challenges facing a company officer today is bringing his group together as an effective team. Many officers may agree that bringing the group together is easy; encouraging that same group to work together cohesively can be a monumental task.
Team building is not a natural process. People are taught to be independent at a very early age. After years of developing this independence, an individual is hired as a firefighter and placed within a group, with the expectation that everyone in the group will function as a team. It sounds easy, but it can be a very difficult challenge for a highly independent individual who has never learned to function within a team.
The company officer must teach firefighters sound team principles. Over time, the team will mature and become cohesive. As this happens, the officer’s effectiveness increases in proportion to the team’s effectiveness. In addition, the company officer must possess the skills needed to bring the team together and to manage the team to prevent fragmentation.
The company officer must be familiar with two concepts when attempting to transform a fire company into a high-performance team: the group and the team approach.
A group is a collection of firefighters coming together as a unit to accomplish individual tasks. Most fire departments function under this group process, especially on the emergency scene. If properly managed, this process can be very effective in a short course of time.
The team approach is a unique process of managing fire personnel on and off the emergency scene. Is the firefighters’ teamwork very effective on the fireground? What about back at the station between runs?
The team approach is a distinctive management style that works to harness the collective talents and energy of individual firefighters within a company. Think of the diverse talents seen in fire departments today. Imagine what would happen if all that talent and energy could be channeled in an organized and coordinated effort. As a company officer, wouldn’t that make your job a lot easier?
In the team approach, a group of firefighters with a common purpose are committed to working together interdependently. These firefighters are accountable as a unit within the organization for the output (work) they produce.
Accountability to each other is very high in this type of team environment. If one person on the team fails to do his job effectively, it will have a negative impact on the entire team. Remember, the team wins together and the team loses together.
Teams deliver. They are results-oriented and do what it takes to succeed. They are not easily discouraged or distracted. The team members believe they are responsible for their actions and act to resolve difficulties that stand in the way of their success. Teams are action-oriented.
Sound too good to be true? Here’s a proven method that company officers can start implementing today.
PROVIDE THE FOCUS
Focus, the foundation of a team, consists of creating and communicating a vision and setting team goals. The company officer can use these two elements to provide and maintain a focus for the team. Remember, the number one cause of team burnout and team ineffectiveness is lack of focus. If the company officer fails to establish this focus, the team members must establish their own focus, which will be centered on themselves and not on the needs of the fire company. When this occurs, the team concept breaks down and fragments. This is how the “What’s in it for me?” attitudes develop, which are counterproductive to the team approach.
In creating this focus, the company officer must look toward the future and create a team vision. What type of fire company do you want to develop? What should your team look like in the future? If your fire company could be anything it wanted, what would it be? What would the ideal fire company look like? Answer these questions, and you have your vision. Remember, however, that you may never reach your vision but that you are constantly working toward that vision, which becomes the driving force for your company.
Once you have established your vision, establish goals to determine how the vision will be accomplished. It is extremely important that your team members participate in setting the team goals. This provides them with a sense of ownership; when there is ownership, people tend to work harder to accomplish the goals. For optimal effectiveness, team goals need to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Dimensioned.
Make sure you spend enough time establishing a strong foundation for your team. The vision and goals will help keep the team focused and moving in the right direction.
Trust is the cornerstone of the team and is by far one of the most difficult areas to promote. Without trust, people cannot communicate in an open way and relationships cannot be formed.
Some branches of the military have recently changed their approach to the team concept. In the past, when forming battalions, commanders would move people in and out of the team. They did not want members to become too close. But today that attitude has changed; now commanders try to keep the same people in the team and try to build strong relationships between the troops.
Team effectiveness is proportional to the level of trust within the team. If team members are constantly asking themselves if they can trust each other, the team will be paralyzed and unable to advance forward.
Talking is the best way to build relationships. As relationships improve, so will the trust level. The company officer can help facilitate this process through informal roundtable discussions in which team members can openly discuss concerns, roles, and responsibilities. The more the team members talk, the more relationships will form.
The personal integrity of each member of the team is another important aspect of trust. Trust extends to the limit of truth and no further. If a team member is holding something back or is not totally honest about his intentions or activities, it affects the trust of the entire team.
Team members must do what they say they will do. All team members are dependent on each other. Therefore, members must live up to the team’s expectations. It is the success of the team, not the individual, that is important.
MAINTAIN AND PROMOTE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
The company officer must expect good attitudes from the team members. A winning team needs a positive attitude. Without a positive attitude, the team will lose its focus, thus becoming less effective.
So, what attitude do you bring to the team? As a company officer, you set the tone for the rest of the team. If you exhibit a negative, constantly complaining attitude, you can expect the same from your team members. The company officer must promote and maintain a good attitude within the team. Negativity will erode the team concept.
Every team will have problems. The question is, How will its members respond to those problems? Will they see them as opportunities to improve, or will they complain and whine and take no action? Every team will run into adversity, but can the team seek out the good hidden in that adversity? A high-performance team knows how to bounce back from a loss and become better because of the loss.
This team attitude is not a Pollyanna attitude where everything is peachy. Everything is not peachy, but the team members must focus on the positive and approach the task at hand with a can-do attitude. This attitude starts with the company officer, who sets the example.
Many fire departments struggle today because of negativity within the organization. The company officer must approach those with bad attitudes and let them know that negativity will not be tolerated. Bad attitudes exist because they are allowed to exist. Your job as an officer is difficult as it is-you don’t need to tolerate bad attitudes, too.
The company officer will ask team members to do tasks that they have never done before, and they will make mistakes from time to time. There’s a big difference between allowing mistakes and tolerating poor performance. In poor performance, one makes the same mistake over and over. The officer cannot and should not allow poor performance but can encourage team members to explore new territory and undertake new tasks.
When a member makes a mistake, the officer should guide that member through a learning process. How was the mistake made? Why was the mistake made? How do we approach this task in the future to prevent the same mistake? Some firefighters will resist team activity because they fear failure. However, knowing that the team is there to support and guide them reduces the level of fear. Take their fear away, and team members become cohesive.
EDUCATE THE TEAM
Educating the team is promoting skill development in team dynamics. The company officer must be willing to teach team members support skills that help the team grow, including communication skills, problem solving skills, conflict management skills, and group dynamics, just to mention a few.
In addition to team dynamics skills, the company officer must ensure that all members are proficient in firefighting, rescue, and EMS skills. To ensure high performance, the team members must be skillful.
The very nature of teamwork forces an improvement in communications. Teams cannot function successfully without open and honest communications. The company officer is responsible for determining what information the team needs and then continually providing that information. Open-book management, in which the officer shares information with and promotes dialogue within the team, is very effective. Information gives the team the advantage. Except for disciplinary action, there should be very few secrets. Secrets and withholding information decrease the team’s trust and performance levels.
CLARIFY ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
The company officer must ensure that all team members understand their roles and responsibilities and how their roles affect the team. If a member fails to carry out his responsibilities, how will this affect the team’s performance? How will team members support each other and the roles they play? Do team members see the big picture and how each person must rely on one another?
As a company, make sure you have clarified all team members’ expectations. This helps ensure that the team stays focused and on track.
RECOGNIZE AND REWARD
Recognition and rewards keep the team motivated and also help ensure that the team members know that they are valued.
Recognition is intangible but can be very visible-a “thank you!” or a “you did a good job!” Mentioning a member in a newsletter or during a meeting is a good way to recognize high-performance teams.
Rewards such as plaques, gift certificates, and certificate of recognition are tangible ways to recognize your team. Sending a thank-you note to team members’ homes is an inexpensive but effective way to reward a job well done. The challenge for the company officer is to become innovative in recognizing and rewarding team members.
The team building process requires the company officer to be patient with the ups and downs. But, as the team matures, the downs become less frequent. Give the process a constant shot in the arm to ensure consistent and effective performance. Without constant support, the team will dissolve or become paralyzed. Keep the team members focused and motivated, and you will be amazed at what they can accomplish.
George Washington once said, “Our objective ought to be to have a good army rather than a large army.” The team process promotes a precision fire company, not necessary a large one.
TIM HOLMAN is chief of the German Township Fire and EMS in Springfield, Ohio. He is the sole proprietor of Holman Training and Development and has helped more than 250 fire departments and corporations develop teams. Holman trains and speaks on a variety of fire department and EMS management issues and has written three books.