Dealing with Distrust In Your Department

Many fire departments struggle with creating high levels of mutual trust within their departments. Maybe you can relate to the following scenarios. A fire captain contacted me recently about some trust issues within his department. He informed me that...


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Many fire departments struggle with creating high levels of mutual trust within their departments. Maybe you can relate to the following scenarios.

A fire captain contacted me recently about some trust issues within his department. He informed me that people have been reluctant to share information throughout the organization. This “hoarding of information” included non-fireground, work-related issues, training events and situations on the fire scene. This has created a large concern for this department and the leadership is perplexed as to why it is occurring.

A department in Australia has struggled with trust issues as members continue to attempt a cultural transformation. The chief says he recognizes the importance of building trust through ethical behavior and good leadership, but admits it’s not always easy to keep everyone on the same page, especially in a very large department.

Yet another department is fighting an uphill battle to regain trust. The front line does not trust the management team, who asked for input on a project, but had already determined the outcome. When this was discovered, resentment and distrust set in as a divide grew between management and labor. As a result, the firefighters cut off as much communication as possible with the management team, making the situation even worse.

What do you think are the biggest causes of distrust in fire departments? Many people would suggest a breach of character or integrity is the biggest culprit. While that certainly is a trust crusher, it’s not the biggest cause. Bad leadership (at every level, including the front line) is typically the biggest cause of distrust in most fire departments. This is especially true in departments where a command-and-control style of leadership is used at every turn and input is discouraged.

In one department, some senior managers dictated a process and decision to the front line. The front-line firefighters knew it would not be effective, but would not give their input for fear of retribution. This fear was justified based on past experience in this department, where voicing concerns over a management decision was considered disrespectful and managers would retaliate. Additionally, if the fire chief had to overturn any decisions made by senior management, the chief was accused of not supporting the management team.

Sadly, all of these scenarios have occurred in fire departments. It is not uncommon for members to think that some of the problems they face are unique to their department, their management team, their chief or their firefighters. I can assure you that fire departments all over the world are struggling with some of the same issues, and specifically the trust issue.

To facilitate an environment of trust in your department, start with open dialogue that lets people respectfully raise concerns, give their input and be part of the problem-solving process. Those closest to the problems always have the best solutions. Good leaders recognize this and solicit the input of their team members. Command-and-control-style leaders seem to think they always have the best answers and will not ask for nor accept input. Instead, they dictate decisions and processes, which creates a high level of distrust.

The need for accountability

When members of a fire department are not held accountable for bad behavior or bad leadership, you will also see a reluctance to share information. If people do not feel that their leaders will do the right thing, they will not trust those leaders with valuable information. So, if you want to increase the level of trust in your department, you need to develop great leaders who hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and decisions and will not retaliate when people respectfully give their input.

Survey your members. Ask them to rate their level of trust toward their fellow firefighters, their company officers and the management team. Then ask them what issues are causing lower levels of trust. And then ask them how trust can be improved. Remember this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

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