Why Don't They Listen to Me?


You are the volunteer fire chief in a small community. Your fire department has been in business for over 100 years and is a fixture in your area. You have been a member for a long time and thought you were comfortable in your role as the chief. However, things have been happening lately that cause you to be uneasy. People question every order you give and every request you make. The normally active volunteers who were the backbone of the department for many years are not turning out. They are skipping the alarm malfunctions, trash fires and false alarms. It is getting lonely in the middle of the night with just a few people turning out.

Many of these people have been buddies for years; many were childhood friends. Where once you experienced a great sense of teamwork you now see a group of people who seem to be acting as selfish individuals.

Guess what — there is a good reason for what you are seeing. These people are individuals and they are returning to the roots of elementary human behavior. You are suffering through one of the great problems every person in a leadership position faces. People are unique and you must take this into account every time you interact with members of your team.

You cannot lead your people in the way proposed by early management and leadership studies, when people were considered to be nothing more than resources much like water, steel, wood or money. They were thought to be expendable "things," rather than individual human beings with feelings and emotions. Today, we (hopefully) look at things differently.

This change did not come overnight. It came over time as a result of a wide variety of studies completed by colleges and universities around the world. Many of these studies started out as projects to identify how companies could get more labor out of each worker. Change came about at least in part as a result of the human relations movement within management research. This movement began as a seemingly accidental offshoot of a time-and-motion study conducted at the Hawthorne facility of the Western Electric Co. in Illinois from 1927 to 1932. Its original premise involved altering environmental variables in an industrial setting.

Elton Mayo and fellow Harvard researchers were assessing the impact of various lighting levels in the factory. When light was added to their working environment, people worked harder. This made sense to the researchers. To qualify this, they took away light to see what would happen. Rather than drop back to a lower level of productivity, these people began to work even harder. After experimenting with a number of environmental factors, the researchers came to believe that it was the attention being paid to them that motivated the workers, not the factors themselves. One interesting element of the study was that the workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded.

At the base of all human relations is the concept of behavior. These are the actions of the individual and are based on factors that stimulate people as they mature to adulthood. We seek to study how people act so that we may explain what they do and predict how they will act in the future. If we can do this, we might be able to develop some way to influence people in the performance of their duties.

The study of individual human behavior is complex. Factors that affect us include physiological variables, such as body style; psychological variables, such as perceptions, attitudes, learning ability, motivation and personality; environmental variables during infancy, adolescence and adulthood; and social class. No one factor can ever be divorced from the others in a study of the people around you. Each person in your fire department is a complete and unique package at all times and in all places. Let us now take a closer look at the parts of the human equation.

Research shows that different body types respond differently to training and nutrition. William Sheldon (1898–1977) was an American psychologist who observed all the variety of human bodies. He taught at several universities and spent his career doing valuable research. As a child, he was an avid observer of animals and birds; as he grew up, this hobby turned into a strong ability to observe the human body.

The basics of body types are:

  • The endomorph — The happy, chubby person who is not physically active, eats a lot and prefers to relax
  • The ectomorph — The thin, shy and jumpy person who is somewhat nervous, easily spooked and hesitant to act
  • The mesomorph — The hard-charging football player kind of person who is action oriented and physical in nature

Each of these people will require a different supervisory style from their leader. You might have to stimulate the endomorph, restrain the mesomorph, and protect, defend and stimulate the ectomorph.

A number of mental activities must be considered within the framework of organizational psychology and its impact on your fire department. Their effects make your job a lot harder. Let us look at them:

  • Frustration — The ability of individuals to withstand and deal with roadblocks placed in their way
  • Conflict — The operation of dissimilar kinds of behavior at the same time; for example, you want to sleep and your pager is beeping to wake you up for a run in the middle of the night
  • Anxiety — Any threat to your well-being or needs gratification such as hunger, thirst or fear

In addition to these mental factors, certain environmental variables are at work in your life and the lives of your people. Each of us has developed within a particular type of family and community environment. Think about the following influences and how they might affect the psychological development of an individual:

  • Early infancy — A happy, loving home with two parents, versus a single-parent home, versus the impact of an orphanage or foster care
  • Adolescence — Urban versus suburban
  • Social class — Upper class versus middle class or working class

It is my opinion that what you are today involves some combination of all of these factors. My research, combined with the living of my life, leads me to understand the importance of the many potential combinations of factors you will encounter within the ranks of your fire department.

Consider the psychological variables that are always at work within the people in your department. All of them come together to influence their behavior:

  • Perceptions — How you receive life's clues and symbols
  • Attitudes — Your mental state of readiness for needs arousal; your readiness to think, act and perform
  • Learning — The change in behavioral practices occasioned by education and experience
  • Motivation — The rewards that make actions worthwhile
  • Personality — The combination of cultural and social factors that people develop to meet the needs and expectations of their overall social group

People change over time as their situations and circumstances change. As a fire service leader, you must constantly monitor the acts, actions and activities of those in your care. A failure to stay up with your people can lead to a failure of your organization to perform at a crucial time.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and a veteran of 47 years in the fire and emergency services. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has also been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and a life member of the National Fire Protection Association. Dr. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in organization and management, with a specialization in leadership, from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.