Sometimes We Need A Kick In The Head

Not literally, of course.  But motivation to learn is directly proportional to the perceived benefit of the education and if there is no perceived benefit, we have to change that perception to achieve the team goals.

For example: Over the weekend, I was working on my porch, and the girls were on the swingset.  Our home actually sits on the ridge of a “100-year dune” so while the house and the porch are at a whopping  16 feet above sea level, the swingset area, which is about fifty feet from the house, is at 8 feet above sea level.  If you calculate the run to rise, you can see it’s not too steep.  It is, however, steep enough that walking off the porch, walking about fifty feet, engaging your subject, and walking back up the hill, back up the steps, and back to what you were doing can get real old if you have to do it OVER and OVER and OVER again.

So I’m minding my own business, trying to get the flowers and plants back to normal after yet another squirrel feeding frenzy, when I hear, “Daddy, can you push me?”  It’s Honora.  She has this sweet sing-song voice that will melt anyone’s heart.  I’m busy, but I break from what I’m doing, go down the hill, etc. etc. and push her.  Then I return to what I am doing.  For about a minute.

When she calls me the second time, I’m not stupid.  I detect an emerging trend.  I do a little bit of analysis for a living, remember?  So I consider that perhaps this is the part where I try some of the theory I pass along to upcoming leaders out, you know, put my money where my mouth is.  So I try to engage my newly minted four-year-old (she turned four this weekend) in the philosophy that you can give a man a fish and he can eat today, but if you teach him to fish, he can eat forever.  This is, of course, given you equip him with a fishing rod, show him what to use for bait, find him a decent fishing location, then teach him to gut, filet, etc. etc.  Easier said than done.

So when I go down the hill this time, instead, I try to convince Honora that learning HOW to swing is MUCH better than my having to come push her every minute.  Or it’s at least much better for me, but I digress.  She, however, wasn’t buying that.  She knew that eventually I’d come and push her, especially if she begged me long enough.  So learning HOW wasn’t really a priority on her chart.  I mean, if Dad will come push me, then why learn?

After about thirty minutes of cajoling, convincing, educating, etc. we were no closer to her being able to swing on her own than I was to having a squirrel-free garden, so I’m thinking you are getting the picture here.  No matter what, if someone doesn’t have a desire to learn, they won’t.  And I don’t care what kind of a leader you think you are, if you have someone who is just dead-on convinced they will learn nothing, that is exactly what they will learn.

I have had this revelation before, but it seemed like a pretty graphic representation of the phenomenon.  We have employees and co-workers for whom no one can teach anything.  They know it all, they have seen it all, and by God, you can’t sell them the idea that there might be a little to learn from everyone, no matter how inexperienced or poorly prepared that they are.  If anything, you might just learn what NOT to do.

Even more so, we have people that we are trying to engage that really don’t want to be engaged.  There are the performers, who seek learning opportunities, and there are the individuals who simply don’t have a desire to be motivated.  Well, there’s something to be said for that.  Is it that they don’t desire to learn or is it that the consequences of their failing to learn haven’t become clear enough or dire enough for them to get the message.

There’s the adage I have used for years about the difference between incompetence and unwillingness; if I were to put a loaded gun to your head and ask you to do a task , and tell you that I was going to pull the trigger if you couldn’t complete the task, the difference is that the incompetent still wouldn’t be able complete it and the unwilling will figure out a way somehow.  When consequences of failure are severe enough (and I’m certainly not advocating putting a gun to someone’s head), if you simply don’t know, you don’t know.  Thus there is a difference between motivation and education.

In any team dynamic, there is occasionally a need to point out the merits and the disadvantages of failure.  Some things should be pretty obvious, but in certain aspects of the job, one must be given reinforcement as to the consequences; not only as to what will happen if they fail in regard to the impact on the organization, but also in regard as to what your avenue of remediation will be to insure that it does get done.

We each have a responsibility to be able to do the minimum requirements of the job, and to do that to the standard upheld by the organization.  The problem is, many managers think that anything coming close to the requisite performance is considered “over and above” simply because they don’t currently hold anyone to the actual standard.  Learning anything, then, isn’t necessarily rewarded.  Learning is expected if you want to advance, but really, it should also be expected if you want to keep your job, especially if you aren’t fully competent at it yet.

When we just fix the errors rather than to educate the individual, we are, in essence, rewarding poor performance. Individual performance must be evaluated if we have a person who isn’t hitting the mark, so we can flag the problem, illustrate the issue, and to give the appropriate direction.  Then, in order for learning to occur, the individual must want to learn how to fix the problem and do something about it.  If the individual is sufficiently motivated, even if they don’t quite get it, they’re at least likely to seek assistance in solving the issues.  If they aren’t, you’ll probably find out the next time they need to perform the task. Hopefully it won’t be a catastrophic failure when you do.

Motivation comes to those who see value in what it is they are trying to accomplish.  Some people are able to motivate themselves easier than others, mostly because they have the benefit of understanding how their performance relates to overall team success.  This is also helped by a positive attitude, or at least an attitude of willingness to listen and appreciate another’s viewpoint prior to dismissing it offhand.

Motivation shouldn’t require being traumatized, but sometimes it seems like the only thing to cause a change in attitude is a lesson in tough love. When you can provide the appropriate direction, there comes the point, just as we must do with our children, where we must step back and let our charges fail on their own.

Our job is to be there to facilitate a change in behavior, help in redirecting the efforts, and to encourage them to find some answers on their own.  In doing so, we promote growth and independence.  And if we fail to do this, if we catch them every time, they’ll be dependent upon you forever.


  • backstepfirefighter says:


    That first paragraph should sticks out alarmingly. At the PERI symposium from years ago, a few of the presenters touched on the fact the unlike our counterparts in the United Kingdom, and some in the business world, we (the fire service) don’t reward good safety behavior.

    Our discourse is a bunch of ‘thou shalt not’ mingled with a huge number of close calls, near misses and multi media examples of firefighters doing it wrong. The number of negatives for exceed the positives.

    “When we just fix the errors rather than to educate the individual, we are, in essence, rewarding poor performance.” This speaks volumes. Great thoughts.


  • Dear Mick,
    I agree with this post. however, the business world is not so great at this either.

    In many cases, the standard is used as a bludgeon to get people OUT in the business world, unrelated to a mission for training or the standard itself. It is the only thing left that isn’t actionable.

    My next comment has to do with your daughter as an example. (First, what a great story! I see it all!!)

    To me it points out that some individuals have more primary goals than success in a task. Your daughter was motivated–but her motivation was not yours. It’s not that she didn’t want to learn, but she perceives ‘less attention’ afterward. You may praise her at the time, but down the road? It means you are going back to the squirrel detail and Daddy won’t be attending. She loses something.

    Unlike a mentally healthy and loving daughter, the working individual’s motivations could be outside the purview of their profession. This undermines efforts at a straight “teach a man to fish” approach. In short, they may be answering motives indirectly by calling attention to themselves. That requires considerable mental agility to address–and sometimes of course can’t be.

    Wow, sorry, long comment,
    Great post. Always getting me to thinkin’,
    Ann T.

  • truck6alpha says:

    Thanks for all the comments-

    Bill: I think someone (maybe even you) said the other day, are we just desensitizing ourselves with all the near-miss reporting? We need to seek good practices and reward those and remediate the poor practices, just as you said. I guess the problem is that we don’t see the good ones all the time and when we get to the bad ones, it’s usually too late. A dilemma…

    Ann: I am afraid I over-simplify too much in here. No sooner do I post and re-read, I’m thinking of other alternatives to what I stated. You are certainly right on target. It’s one of the things where we have to take into account ALL of the motivations at play and weed out the one that applies. Not all the motivations are altruistic, even when they seem so on the surface. And not every seemingly poor motivation can be chalked up to the job- people bring their baggage to work with them, and sometimes it’s a matter of cutting through that noise to get to the heart of the matter. I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I play one on the WWW.

    Thanks for reading!

  • fm114fd says:

    @ Ann T., Thanks, you just described my 21-year old college student stepson! Why learn to be self-sufficient when Mommy will take care of it for you? Sadly, the analogy goes right along towards a number of the probies we’ve hired recently…

    Is it just me, or does it seem like today’s generation of young firefighters don’t have the motivation to learn for themselves? They’d rather half-ass the job, then depend on the senior staff to ‘show them how to do it right’…

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