hose reducedI was going through back issues of T+D Magazine and came upon an article by Paula Ketter, “What’s The Big Deal (About Employee Engagement)” .  In it, Ketter states: “Engagement is all about creating a culture where people do not feel misused, overused, underused, or abused”.  That’s a pretty tall order for the cultures of some organizations, it seems. Doesn’t  it seem like there’s a always a certain amount of frustration from people in the fire service regarding their own organization and how their department meets one of these criteria? It’s always a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, but when you work around agencies other than your own for any period of time, you find they have their downsides as well.

Ketter explains that engagement can be directly related to individual, group, and organizational performance.   We as leaders are challenged constantly to improve our service in regard to productivity, retention, turnover, customer service, and loyalty.  Maybe it’s time we paid more attention to how we can motivate our personnel and get them passionate about their jobs, to the point where they feel the organization values their participation.

People become dissatisfied with their current situation (job, home life, friends, etc.) when they feel like they meet those descriptors (misused, overused, underused, or abused).  Suffice it to say, people who feel like the leadership of their organization doesn’t respect or value them are probably experiencing the same situation as someone contemplating a divorce.  If some of your personnel feel like they are in one of these dysfunctional situations, they may be inclined to make that leap away from the organization.  In a time where people are trying to keep their jobs, you’d think that it would be easy to keep personnel. I’d suggest to you otherwise, that especially in this economy, since the disengaged people won’t leave, they’ll just continue to stay.  When the situation becomes toxic enough, they’ll also poison others as well.

If you are a volunteer, you’ve been trying to recruit and retain personnel for the last decade.  It’s even more important for the volunteer fire service to engage your people (or perspective members) because really, that positive environment is the only real compensation they’re getting anyway.  Since there is no real financial loss to these people for leaving, within a period of their unhappiness with the situation, they’ll find something out there that is more rewarding to them in one way or another.

Those of us who still have employment in this economy I’m sure are grateful we still have jobs and don’t need to be reminded about how lucky we are.  If the culture was bad to begin with and even now, continues to be intolerable, “Be glad you are still here”, isn’t what we want to hear and inevitably, the result is going to be disengaged personnel.  Regardless of what anyone thinks, individuals will always have options.  They may not be pleasant options, but you do have them, just the same.  The situation that becomes a problem though, is that when the heat gets so high that those less-pleasant options look more and more palatable, you will see turnover.  That turnover could very well be catastrophic turnover, especially if the people you lose are key players.  Once one person makes the leap, they give “permission” to others to make that leap.  As a leader, we really need to understand that if people are willing to make major changes in their life to get away from our team, there is likely a bigger problem than what lies on the surface, especially if we start seeing the numbers multiplying.

Part of the challenge of engagement is insuring that work is rewarding and fulfilling.  If all we are doing is punching a clock twice a day and our existence can’t be seen as contributing to society, we become disinterested and begin to feel like we have no value to others.  Furthermore, if we are banking on transactional leadership to sustain any hope of keeping the best people around, I suggest to you that at some point, it won’t be about the reward if they are that miserable.  When individuals feel like they are valued, they will do anything for you.  When individuals feel like they are valued, they will be reluctant to leave, even when better offers come around (it’s no guarantee they’ll stay, but they’ll be more apt to stay at least).

During the time I worked for one fire department, I used to hear some employees complain about the organization and the leadership regularly.  Yet when that Chief retired, those same individuals could be regularly referring to the “good old days” and how the previous Chief’s administration “treated us like family”.  While I wasn’t unhappy at that organization in either administration, I did observe that there wasn’t as much of the camraderie and friendship as had been in the past, but in retrospect, how much of that was now that we were a much larger department and while much of the leadership of the first administration was still there, they had to spread their “love” around to six stations now instead of two?  Of course there was resentment- the employees no longer felt like they had value.  For all those years of constant reinforcement, now they had to share it with even more “siblings”.  I think the biggest part of that feeling came from the employees getting less and less strokes and less and less positive reinforcement.  Individuals began to feel as if their work was not essential.  Furthermore, when people don’t live in the community in which they work, they can’t see the tangible results of their efforts, and likewise begin to experience a disconnect with their contributions.

Good leaders will add heat to the fire to motivate and challenge their personnel, while reinforcing their values and showing them that their efforts do matter.  The biggest part of creating an effective team is getting members to feel like they are part of a team.  If being part of an organization has no meaning to them, don’t be surprised if they are less engaged and subsequently less productive and passionate about their jobs.  To get people to buy into the culture, you have to be engaged yourself and show them that you value the positive environment, and instead of losing people, you give them permission to join you to achieve success.

1 Comment

  • Chief Reason says:

    Zen Master;
    More good brain food.
    What I wonder about is the one who bring their negative energy from outside of the fire department to the fire department.
    Since the social structure in the fire department is usually very strong, firefighters tend to confide and look for solutions from their peers.
    So, with volunteer departments particularly and since we aren’t professional psychologists, where is that blurry line that maybe shouldn’t be crossed when dealing with a firefighter that brings his/her emotional baggage to the station?
    And, how do you keep it from causing problems with others to the point that it is affecting morale, attendance, etc.?
    You have left me wandering.

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