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Do you ever shake your head at what your fire personnel say or do? Does firefighter behavior continue to stupefy you and deny plausible explanation? If you feel a little exasperated with the myriad behaviors of today’s firefighters, take stock that there are strategies for coping and handling your employees. As an executive fire officer today you need to be a quasi-psychologist, sociologist and at times even a Marine Corps drill sergeant to understand behaviors and motivate your firefighters.
The secret to all of this may lie in your approach. That is, in order to understand your firefighters, you must learn to see through their eyes. This article examines several situations that prove to be problematic for senior staff in terms of employee behavior and motivation. But with an understanding of what motivates employees, executive fire officers may develop better motivational methods. Insights are provided in a point/counterpoint format.
A veteran firefighter with more than 25 years of experience has withdrawn from active involvement in fire department operational issues and now does as little as possible. It is baffling to understand why his behavior has changed so drastically, but you are tasked with bringing him back to participating in moving the department forward.
Point: The typical and traditional approach to this situation would be from a “command and control” standpoint. That entails having a supervisor telling the subordinate to “shape up” and show some initiative. The expectation is that authoritative words alone will motivate the firefighter enough and immediate improvement will be seen.
All of this may even be after a short meeting with the supervisor doing all of the talking and the subordinate doing all of the cowering. The ultimate goal of this type of motivation is to intimidate and use the power of rank and position to get the firefighter back on track. After all, an experienced and knowledgeable firefighter should show leadership by being involved in fire department operations and the supervisor is the one who sees that happen.
Counterpoint: Something is going on in this firefighter’s life that has profoundly changed his level of commitment to the organization. Perhaps a family or personal situation such as an illness or a divorce is weighing heavily on his mind and consuming the energy that you want him to put into the organization. If this is the case, listening and providing support and understanding to this firefighter should be your priority. We would not expect this firefighter to re-engage in the organization until he finds resolution in his personal life. Perhaps the firefighter has grown beyond the realm of the organization and has found new interests (music, motorcycles, etc.) that have captured his attention and he is now consumed in the pursuit of new knowledge. Again, beyond communication and understanding, there may not be much that you’re going to be able to do to re-ignite this person’s verve for the organization.
However, there may be another explanation that’s well within your control and hits a lot closer to home. Namely, the problem may be the organization itself. Perhaps this firefighter has grown tired of an organization where his contribution to the decision-making process is neither solicited nor desired. Perhaps he doesn’t agree with the direction in which the department is moving. If this is the case, what is the firefighter’s motivation to promote further forward movement?
Finally, ask yourself what is the contribution you’re looking for from your veteran firefighters. Are you are looking for someone to help define the vision and goals of the organization or merely be a cheerleader to promote and sell your goals? If it’s the latter, you’re reaping what you’ve sown. In your search for the answers, make sure you’re willing to look as closely at yourself as you are at others. In all cases, open and courageous conversations between you and your people will provide the answers and begin to get the organization back on track.