Seeking Better Answers – Introspection and Listening

zz work modHeuristics are valuable in permitting us to make quick decisions. In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell (in his best seller, Blink) described this ability as being a very powerful tool in decision making.  If we can trust that the information is reliable, we can act on it with some certainty.  Conversely, acting on information when we lack all the intangibles can prove disastrous.

Availability heuristics can be very useful. As a fire chief, if I happen to respond to a fire in a building that I have recently been in (while not on fire), I can assume that all of the things I recently experienced there are the same: interior layouts, locations of people, and conditions of fuel load, for examples. However, as time increases between the last time I was in that building and today, given a fire in that building, I cannot be sure if those conditions still exist. Modifications may have been made to the floor plan. Furniture may have been moved. Inventory may have been sold, or even increased.

How our mind utilizes heuristic information is extraordinary.  We have the ability to function quickly, process subtleties, and act accordingly if so inclined.  There is also a tremendous value, however, in stopping for a moment, taking in all the facts available, and determining if what we are sensing is, in fact, what we believe it to be. As I train fire officers to make good decisions, not just on the emergency scene, but in their stations, and on the streets while working with our customers, it is important to me that they act appropriately to information, but they must balance that need with the requirement to get as many facts as possible, to ensure they get the situation right.

But while heuristics permit us to quickly categorize, they can also promote laziness in thought. While well illustrated during this Presidential Election, there is enough rhetoric going around to assume that anyone who voted for President-elect Trump is an “uneducated angry racist” and anyone who voted for Secretary Clinton is a “whiny entitled elitist”.  One can’t simply assume these things in one way or another- yes, heuristic information is helpful in regard to putting certain things in context, but while it feels comfortable for me to personally say, “All the protesters are criminals”, the reality is more like, “There are a number of criminals among the protesters who are doing a disservice to the peaceful (and therefore lawful) protesters”.

This is just a little wake-up call for the rest of the story. When it comes to assumptions, there are a lot of them being made these days without virtue of examining other factors.  In our context, look at how younger individuals interact with us in the fire station, or when we encounter them in any other situation.  Not all Millennials are locked into their electronic devices.  Not all of them are whiny and entitled. Not all of them believe in participation trophies. When I look at my own children, I realize they are not of my own generation, but they are good kids.  They do have electronic devices that I must pry them from on occasion, and there are sufficient times when I find them a little whiny. But again, the reality is that they are who they are, and I coach them as often as possible on being responsible, caring, compassionate, polite, and forgiving. Yes, there are a vast number of Millennials to whom that is foreign behavior, but I look at some of our new hires, and younger friends I have made, and I realize that not everyone born at the turn of the century is hopeless.

Taking it back to the point, we (leaders) must be on guard against assuming anyone is anything we can automatically categorize. We must instead try to reach individuals and motivate them, and understand their perspective, which admittedly, can be a little frustrating. I come from a time of strict paramilitary hierarchy. Even my own study has found that to be a misguided approach in today’s emergency service mission, with all the specialty work we do, but it doesn’t keep me from believing that if I tell you to do something, I should see it done or see your dead body where you were trying.

Not every situation begs the employment of a hammer, and yes, sometimes I struggle with that.  Leadership, however, requires constant learning. And re-learning.  And while I do believe that if I tell you to do something on an emergency scene, I’d better see it happening, I also believe there are times when a more analytical approach is required, especially when dealing with subject matter in which we are not familiar.

Introspection is an important part of our job, and I myself find that recently, I have been slipping on that.  Grasping at easy categories to define situations, it is far less time consuming, but the results can be mistaken for truth when they are really not. Take the time to listen, understand, and gain perspective.  If we can be more like this, maybe we really can lead and create better solutions.

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