THE DEPARTMENT OFFICER AS CHANGE AGENT

BY JOHN M. BUCKMAN

Among the competencies volunteer fire department leaders must have is to know how to institute change where needed and how to manage the change instead of having the change manage them.

Accepting the role of a leader means accepting the responsibility of being a change agent. Let’s start by agreeing that this is easier said than done. There is much truth in the saying that the only constant in life is change. This is especially true in a volunteer fire department, where you must keep up with changes in your community, governing body, and membership and the general public. Add to these activities changing mandates and information from courts, legislation, regulatory agencies, and societal trends and values, and you can understand why volunteer fire officers confess to high stress on the job.

Nevertheless, the officer’s job in the midst of all this is to stay calm—to adjust and be as effective as possible and to put forth the best effort daily. Volunteer firefighters need it, the public demands it, fire chiefs expect it, and your citizens deserve it. When it becomes necessary, the officer must be able to deal with change effectively. He must be a change agent—one who anticipates, causes, manages, controls, and directs the change.

UNDERSTANDING CHANGE

Change is a shift from what was to what must be. You start at one point and move to another. Effecting change successfully means being able to map a course from the present to the future with a minimum of casualties and maximum speed. It demands that you help others and yourself to let go of what was so that you can embrace the new.

As a primary change agent, it is up to you to make changes go as smoothly as possible. To do this, you must understand that people will resist change when they believe it will

  • reduce their authority or position,
  • disrupt their established work patterns,
  • be forced on them without their input,
  • reduce or eliminate the options they now enjoy,
  • force them into work that they cannot handle,
  • reduce their opportunities to interact with significant others,
  • take away some securities they currently have,
  • reduce their rewards,
  • be instituted to punish or embarrass them, or
  • be forced on them at times of high stress and other demands.

You may be able to add to this list. Its purpose is to help you think through any potential objections you might encounter as you introduce change. Knowing how people might resist change will help you to adopt strategies that will help reduce the resistance and to recruit allies who can help you effect the change.

MINIMIZING RESISTANCE

You can reduce or eliminate resistance to change by taking an approach that will help your department members overcome their fears associated with the change—loss of prestige, position, friends, familiar work routines, relationships, rewards, and success. One of the ways you can do this is to keep your people informed. Spell out specifically how the change will or will not impact them and their work. Explain the benefits that will accrue after the change is in place. Show time frames when possible.

Listen honestly to their expressed fears; never dismiss them as foolish. You are dealing with people’s feelings, which are facts to them. Listen carefully; address each fear directly and with as few words as possible. Be concise to reduce any chance of misinterpretation. Show on a chart how the proposed changes will work.

Draw on your department members’ concern for your clients. Show them how the clients will benefit from the change. Explain the reason for change; make sure the reason is valid. Relate the contemplated benefits of the change to your department’s mission objectives. Explain how members will be trained and equipped to handle the new responsibilities.

Be sensitive to the fact that some department members may have developed the policy or program you are proposing to change and may feel hurt because you think it should be changed. Help them to see that the proposed changes have evolved from their original program, which serves as the basis for the new program. Give them recognition for their contribution, and remind them that when they first introduced their plan, it also represented a policy change.

If the new idea or activity is going to replace the present one, celebrate all the benefits the current program has brought to the department during its existence. Brainstorm. List all the benefits on a flipchart. If there will be no hard feelings, you might list also those challenges that would be resolved by replacing the current system with the proposed one.

Accept the fact that not everyone will be happy about the change. Don’t jeopardize your goal by attempting to make everyone happy. That’s not practical or possible. Believe in your change. Introduce it carefully, and direct its application. You may lose some people. Thank them for all they have done, and bid them farewell. They may take some of their friends with them.

Recruit department members who can help you make the changes. Identify those to whom other members turn for guidance and leadership, and find out where they stand on the change. Ask for their help in implementing it. Ask these helpers to speak to others about the benefits of the change. Have them share any concerns they may have and suggestions for overcoming them. Listen to their advice. Involve them in assessing how well the change process has worked and how well the change itself is working. Ask if the process can be improved. If so, how? You’re not trying to twist arms to get people to say yes to the change; you are trying to remove their reasons for saying no. It is a guiding principle of persuasion.

The primary functions of a change agent are to identify the change needed, design it, introduce it, and draw in those affected by it so that they can become advocates of the proposal and successful workers as it is implemented. People want to be involved in changes that affect them. They want to be reassured that the change will be in their and the department’s best interests.

THE CHANGE AGENT AND THE BRICK WALL SYNDROME

I suspect that every change agent can recall a moment when he was so excited by a new idea that he could hardly stand it. The idea was presented to a significant member of the department with arms flailing and eyes sparkling, and the change agent then stood back and waited for the listener to start jumping up and down, clapping with glee, and cheering his brilliance. After waiting and waiting, his idea was dismissed as a silly, foolish, impossible, or impractical notion. Or, he was simply told “No.”

It’s a shock to a person’s entire being to run into such a brick wall of rejection, and it hurts, too. The good thing here is that, because change agents have experienced rejection before, they are careful about how, when, and whom they approach when proposing change. Fire chiefs are constantly offering change as they work. Past experiences and the fact that they are great observers of the people around them cause them to consider change very, very carefully. When planning changes, they clearly explain their goals, know who will be affected, whom they will have to recruit to help make it happen, and who will resist and how the resistors might react. They also have determined how they will reward those who make the change happen and how to estimate the gains and losses during and after the change happens, and they have weighed the costs and have mapped out responses pertaining to worst-case scenarios.

SOME SURVIVAL TACTICS

I have looked at the change agent from an enlightened perspective here; however, I think it may be helpful to at least mention the darker side of that role. Although not the norm, there are times when a change agent runs into real bear traps, set by people whose agenda is to stop the effort. This goes well beyond the normal resistance most people will have when a major change is announced. The bear trappers are in no mood to have their fears reduced or to listen to reason. They have a different agenda. I offer here a few survival tactics.

Tread carefully. Watch out for expectations that are too high and for people who may be threatened. When assessing a need for change, be sure that you can validate the reason for the change. Be prepared to cite specific instances when the current response (or no response at all) has been ineffective or detrimental. Have examples ready. When designing something new, be sure you can document the expressed needs for what you propose and why current systems or programs cannot meet those needs.

Some general reasons for needing a new idea might be that no one else is meeting the need; the need is not being met adequately or only a small portion of the need is being met; the format, process, timing, or location limits the ability to respond to the need; and the effort is too slow or outdated and does not meet current needs.

If you do not plan carefully, especially in assessing who might be upset by your effort, you might find that the very people you thought would welcome some help in addressing the need or those you had believed would be your closest allies because they spearheaded a parallel program may be the very ones who set the bear trap for you.

Watch for this especially when you are trying to change, update, augment, or create any effort that might cause others to feel that their personal domain is being threatened, or you may find bear traps all around you, though they may be cleverly camouflaged. Some of the “weapons”that may be used to defeat an idea or change perceived as threatening include the following:

  • Disinformation. Wrong information is knowingly disseminated among members with the objective of recruiting others to help in the fight against the change or idea.
  • Targeted disinformation. This is similar to disinformation but is aimed at a pet proj-ect in an attempt to panic others into thinking that something they like and is significant to them is about to be destroyed if the change or effort comes about.
  • Personal discrediting. The thinking here is, if the idea can’t be attacked, attack the change agent’s credibility, ethics, skills, or motivation. This can get very ugly and is often carried out through disinformation.
  • Whispers from a close friend. This approach hits you personally and professionally. A person who appears to be close to the change agent and therefore assumed to be in the know whispers to others that he is worried about what he knows is really behind the change effort. He suggests that he knows some negative information he doesn’t want to believe or divulge. This person leaves blank spaces for listeners to fill in, which they often do and then pass on the story; the story grows more horrible with each retelling. This is a passive aggressive masterpiece that is hard to track back to an individual who quickly denies any involvement if confronted and then loudly cries out, “But I never meant to imply

    At this point, you might be nodding in recognition of having lived through one of these tactics or, if you haven’t, you are thinking seriously of retreating to your bed and pulling the covers over your head. To be effective as a chief officer in a volunteer fire department, you must develop competencies in being a change artist. As you strive to continually improve procedures and processes, change will be your tool. Learn to appreciate all of its facets and effects, and keeping an eye out for camouflaged bear traps won’t hurt.

    JOHN M. BUCKMAN is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and is president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.

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