During a recent discussion of how to best maximize our fire prevention team during these tough economic times where many of us are faced with doing more with much less, it occurred to us that it may be a good time to refresh some of these tried but true thoughts on team work.
In most fire prevention bureaus, it is not uncommon to face challenges we did not plan for or start the day with, yet somehow we need to resolve them by the end of the week. Often, these projects or solutions demand several or many participants which may include department personnel, local government personnel, citizens, business leaders or a combination of all of these. Most of us now have to do this with less staff. Frequently, other entities we have relied on in the past may also have a reduced staff. How can a quick reaction team be formed in time to provide productive solutions and be supportive of the solutions?
There is rhetoric we hear frequently regarding the use of teams and team performance. These include:
- Team creation takes a long time
- A team has to struggle through conflicts before they can be productive
- Team work is always better than the work of individuals
- Having a team made up of high-performing individuals always makes a very strong team
- Consensus is the goal of all team work
- Everyone is equal and everyone should contribute the same
Team creation takes a long time: If that was the case, how is it we ever put out large fires that involve different fire departments; how do we deal with large disasters involving all sorts of agencies? If teams took a long time to form, these events would never be over, let alone successfully. Granted it does take time to continually improve teams.
The fact is the formation of a team is directly proportional to the leadership. If the leadership is strong, visible and communicates clearly, teams will naturally gravitate to the objective and provide the task results necessary to do what needs to be done. While strong leadership is essential, strong followership is equally important. Failure to listen, participate and engage will leave every good leader hanging. We have all seen great leaders as incident commanders use personnel from other fire departments at large incidents successfully.
A team has to struggle before they are productive: Again, looking at any large fire scene, we can think of nothing farther from the truth. Now, we are not saying that teams don't struggle, because they do. What we are saying is that not all teams "need" to struggle before they become productive. Again, strong leadership is critical. Teams need to be able to air differences, air problems, and listen to differing ideas or observations.
Leaders need to give clear direction as to what is required, and what will be tolerated. Leaders need to establish clear objectives as well as timelines. With good clear direction, teams will generally maintain focus and work through their objectives, thereby minimizing fighting and arguing and will be productive with minimal to no struggles.
Teamwork is always better than the work of individuals: This is almost funny. If individuals didn't maintain their strengths and talent and apply them through the process, how could the results of the team ever be accomplished? It is the individual participation and input that enables the team to be successful. Teamwork is only the end result of collective individual participation and production. Therefore, teamwork is not better than the individual; it is the culmination of hard work and input because of individuals. However, don't confuse this with teamwork accomplishing more than individuals.
Teams made up of high-performing individuals will always result in high performing teams: Frequently, high-performing individuals are high-performing because they are self-starters, assertive, maybe aggressive and smart. Sometimes, putting lots of people like this in a room can end up in chaos. Chaos can occur because these folks typically want to lead, they want their ideas used (because theirs are the best) and they want to direct the others. Consequently, without strong leadership, high performers may not help in providing high performance teams but instead, result in fractured and disjointed teams.