Does Motivation Affect Firefighters?

April 24, 2007
The fact is, when discussing motivation of people, the individual must have the desire to perform the task we are asking of them.

This column is a component of VFIS' "Operation Safe Arrival" initiative, aimed at heightening safety awareness and reducing the frequency and severity of accidents involving emergency vehicles.

How do you motivate people? There are many different contexts to which this question could be applied, such as getting people to join an organization, trying to have existing personnel be more active, or even just getting people to clean up after themselves. The truth of the matter, and it may surprise many of you, is that you don't motivate people to do things. Unless individuals have a want, need, or desire to do something, the effort given to the task will be less than 100%.

Mistakenly, motivation, as it pertains to dealing with people, has come to mean that an external force must be applied before someone will do something. The fact is, when discussing motivation of people, the individual must have the desire to perform the task we are asking of them. It is therefore an internal feeling, a raging fire already burning inside, trying to get out.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says that spending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time for one simple reason; if the organizational culture is focused and the right people are in the right positions with everyone doing the right things, then people will be self motivated. He also states that great companies pay little attention to motivating people or creating alignment, because under the right conditions, the problem with commitment, alignment, motivation, and resistance to change just disappear.

Remember the last eager new hire or volunteer that walked into the department on the first day. What did they look like? Were their eyes big, were they often smiling, and did they seem to possess huge amounts of energy? This person was motivated and ready to go do anything you asked. What happens after a month, a year, or ten years? Is that energy still present? Where has that energy gone? Chiefs, line managers, or administrators try hard to "motivate" people to regain that energy that was once overflowing. Why? The question is not "how do we motivate people?", but rather, "How did this person become de-motivated?"

Administrators believe that increased pay or trinkets will suddenly re-motivate. However, most studies show that these efforts do not provide motivation, but merely satisfaction. There is a huge difference between the two. What keeps the fire burning is deeper than superficial, short-term incentives.

When a person loses his desire to perform or go the extra mile, often it is not because of their lack of interest. Just like a fire that is not feed, they will slowly decrease in intensity, energy, and glow. Left alone long enough, the fire's embers cool. However, if a constant supply of the right kind of fuel is added at just the right time, that fire will burn forever. It does not have to be "motivated" to burn, it just burns. People (most people) are analogous to the fire. They have energy, they want to do things, they want to feel important, they want direction (not the same as being told what to do), and they want to belong to something successful. When these "motivators" are taken away, the internal fire begins to cool. Standing and cheerleading in front of the fire is not going to make it burn brighter. Just the same, pep talks may inspire individuals to do something on the short-term, but the motivation, the call to action, comes deep within each person. It is these feelings that need to be stoked. The exciting thing is that everyone has the capacity to stoke someone else's fire and get them to self-motivate or take action. This is called inspiration.

Inspiring people to participate in and follow the rules of the Operation Safe Arrival Intersection Safety Campaign is no different. Each individual has a stake in the importance of the program. Whether it be their volunteer time, the department's reputation and vehicles/equipment, and, ultimately, their life, the motivation is there to implement the Operation Safe Arrival program and gain the recognition the program provides. But greater than temporary praise or recognition offered by any program is the change in culture Operation Safe Arrival stresses. Emergency vehicle operators are committed to reducing needless intersection, road, and traffic collisions. It's now a matter of providing some principles that can reduce and eliminate poor safety practices. Each person has the self-motivation to get home safely after the emergency call.

By knowing what inspires people, understanding what makes an individual want to do what they do, and by establishing a culture that wants to succeed (for the right reasons), then people will find a way to achieve the objectives established. They will rekindle that lost energy and put forth huge amounts of effort. Successful organizations know this and therefore do not have to motivate people. People that are associated with great organizations are already motivated. In less successful companies, some work may need to be done to identify what it would take to rekindle the energy lost by people. It takes effort, but the payoff is more energy, more output, a brighter glow, and a better feel for the staff and the organization. Every person in the ESO plays a vital role in motivation. Keep it positive and the fruit of your efforts will be realized.

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