By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Informed and educated fire service leaders know that getting honest and accurate feedback and input from their
employees or members is a critical factor for success. Whether seeking to solve a problem, improve an existing service, or develop a new service, success is more likely when the people most directly involved have a say beforehand. But are you getting the best feedback or input?
Recently, while working on another project, I came across a report from a research team that conducted a study of firefighter compliance with PPE policies. What “jumped right off the computer screen” was this observation from the authors.
They initially used focus groups of firefighters and officers to collect data but after a couple of groups the research team had already learned something about firefighters:
We then revised the data collection strategy for all remaining fire departments, to conduct only individual interviews with both rank and file firefighters and leadership. Individual interviews allowed participants to express their experiences with safety in their fire department more deeply with researchers, without additional pressure from fellow firefighters in a focus group setting.
Focus groups conducted with firefighters who had varied years of experience limited divergent opinions. Researchers observed rookie firefighters being less likely to vocalize their opinion in a focus group setting if a senior man was present .
Who’d have thought, right?
Better one-on-one feedback
In what just might be one of the best leadership books ever written (IMHO), U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) Michael
Abrashoof describes the leadership lessons he learned as the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s destroyer, the USS Benfold. Abrashoof’s book, It’s Your Ship, contains a great many leadership “nuggets” that can benefit any fire service leader. But one has always stuck in my mind: How Abrashoof solicited feedback and input from his crew and turned it into action.
When Abrashoof took over command of the Benfold, it was one of the Navy’s most under-performing warships in the Navy’s entire fleet. Although the Benfold was one of the most technologically advanced fighting machines sailing the high seas, moral within the crew was low and the vessel’s operational performance scores routinely dipped below the Navy’s expectations.
Early in his new command, Abrashoof conducted one-on-one interviews with each of the more than 300 sailors and officers assigned to the Benfold. In those interviews, Abrashoof asked three questions:
- What do you like about your assignment to the Benfold?
- What don’t you like about your assignment to the Benfold?
- If you were the captain of the Benfold, what’s the one thing you would do tomorrow?
Abrashoof took his own notes during each session and afterwards published the content of those interview questions for the entire crew to read. He then made it his mission to work diligently to:
- Keep doing and reinforce those items identified in Question #1;
- Remove those barriers and remedy those conditions identified in Question #2; and
- Implement as many actions as possible that were identified in Question #3—and give public credit to the sailor or officer who suggested the idea.
Applying Abrashoof’s methods in a fire service organization
When I assumed the position of Director of the Training and Safety Division, aka, the Training Chief, of the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS Department, I took Abrashoof’s three questions and used them during one-on-one interviews with each of my uniformed (8) and civilian (7) employees (Not quite as impressive as 300+ crew members of the Benfold, right?).
Like Abrashoof, I took my own written notes, compiled them, and published them for my entire staff to read (I did “scrub” any information that could name any person). Then I conducted a staff meeting with representation from both my uniformed and civilian staff members to work on implementing that feedback, again using Abrashoof’s methodology. Together, we came up with a “tactical work plan” to make our division better
(BTW, things were going OK when I took command of the division, but it was in a bit of slump due to not having had a full-time director for several months due to an intra-departmental personnel issue).
Amazingly, our results after about six months were close to those experienced by Abrashoof and his crew. Our morale went “through the roof” and everyone on the staff expressed how much they enjoyed being part of a process where: (1) I listened and (2) their ideas and suggestions and thoughts didn’t just “go nowhere.” (Even when we couldn’t do something, we were able to acknowledge that we tried and give everyone a reason why we couldn’t do it, or it didn’t work out).
Your results may vary
But I urge you to “give it a go!” You may have more people to interview, but I think your time would be well
spent whether you’re the chief of the department or a company officer or any rank in between. What’s the adage, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Most people believe that you care when you take the time to listen. Really listen.
- Maglio, M.A.; Scott, C.; Davis, A.L.; Allen, J.; and Taylor, J. Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters’ Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment: A Qualitative Analysis. American Journal of Health Behavior, Volume 40, Number 5, September 2016, pp. 555-567. Retrieved From: https://doi.org/10.5993/AJHB.40.5.2