By Ray Gayk
Published Tuesday, May 22, 2012
| From the July 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Many of us join the fire service because we’re drawn to the idea of being part of a team. Most everything we do in the fire service revolves around the team concept—from fighting a fire to running a medical aid call to something as simple as cooking dinner. The bottom line: We’re well versed in teamwork and it’s the core of what makes firefighting such a great job.
But effective team work isn’t something that happens by accident; in fact, it takes a tremendous amount of effort, planning, communication and willingness to make it work. One thing I’ve realized after being part of several different types of teams over the years is that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” team. All teams have flaws, experience conflicts and some sort of drama; which sometimes seems to become attached to a team like a parasite.
As company and chief officers, we must be cognizant of the fact that our teams will face challenges within their own structure that may eat at their core and decrease their effectiveness. Managing and leading any team is difficult, but we have to recognize when things aren’t firing on all cylinders and make adjustments when needed.
Functional vs. Dysfunctional
Teams can be broken down into two very basic groups: functional and dysfunctional. A functional team is able to work through differences, communicate honestly, recognize and effectively deal with challenges (both internally and externally), and focus on the results of the team. The opposite can be said of a dysfunctional team.
One interesting observation of many dysfunctional teams: They don’t realize they’re dysfunctional, often because they’re too close to the problem, they’re part of the problem, the members are in denial or they’ve never been part of a functional team, so they don’t know the difference.
The Dysfunctions Model
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni describes a dysfunctional team through the telling of a leadership fable. The book follows a fictional business organization that’s having trouble working together as a team and describes the process the team goes through to realize how dysfunctional they really are.
Throughout the book, Lencioni outlines a model that explains the five dysfunctions of a team and describes why understanding these dysfunctions are so critical to the health and performance of a team. This model or concept is very simple to understand, but tremendously difficult to put into practice. In diagram form, the model is shaped like a pyramid that consists of five sections. In this article, I’ll discuss the first or lowest section, or topic, of the pyramid, which is the foundation of all dysfunctional teams: the absence of trust.
In the Absence of Trust
If a team doesn’t have trust, everything they do (or don’t do) suffers and ultimately revolves around or is in some way connected to the absence of trust. It’s impossible to function at a high level without trust. We can fake it, or pretend to trust one another, in order to keep the peace in the firehouse or when we’re out in public, but that tactic isn’t going to cut it on the fireground. We are the only ones who really know if we trust our team members or not.
But a team that doesn’t have trust as their foundation will display it in several ways, whether they realize it or not. Members will hide their own weaknesses or mistakes, so as not to be embarrassed or thought of in a negative light. We all make mistakes, but dysfunctional team members revel in others’ mistakes because they think it makes them look better/smarter/faster or whatever it is.
A good team member will always admit their mistakes and make sure that they take responsibility for them. And the rest of the team should lift up their teammate after they make a mistake rather than break them down. I’ve found that when I make a mistake, simply coming clean and admitting I screwed up is the easiest and quickest way to making things right.
When we don’t trust our team members, we also hesitate to ask for help or input because we’re afraid of the possible negative outcomes, which can lead to mistakes being made. But fearing the reaction of a team member is never a good way to conduct business. We should be able to ask for help and/or input without thinking twice about a teammate’s reaction.
Another aspect of the absence of trust within a team involves an unwillingness to forgive someone for their mistakes or holding onto some longstanding grudge. We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all acted foolishly in the past, and we’ve all said or done some really stupid things over the years. Being able to move on after someone makes a mistake is necessary for the health of a team, but it’s also a multi-facetted process. We must first realize that we screwed up either on our own (self realization) or via someone else pointing it out to us. After the realization, we must have an honest conversation regarding the problem, take responsibility for what we did and make things right. This very simple formula helps build trust within any team; without it, teams will find it very difficult to trust or respect each other.
What You Can Do
In the fire service, where your teammate may literally hold your life in their hands during intense incidents, it’s imperative that our teams are based on solid, trusting relationships. If/when this trust is broken, we must be able to recognize that there’s a problem, and we must work to make things right immediately. Being honest when there is a problem and taking care of issues as they arise is the best way to maintain trust among a team. But as I mentioned before, this sounds easy to do on paper, but it’s extremely difficult to execute properly. High-performing teams must be disciplined enough to recognize the need for some uncomfortable, honest and straightforward conversations to maintain a high level of trust within the organization.
Sometimes we don’t realize that we’ve compromised our trust with another team member. If you feel someone has compromised your trust in them, but they aren’t aware of it, you should communicate it to them as soon as possible so you can address the issue and work on rebuilding the relationship.
Things to Remember
Trust is a precious commodity within our business. It’s sometimes difficult to acquire and relatively easy to compromise. It’s also the basis of our team structure and as such, needs to be constantly looked after. Trust is truly the cornerstone of any relationship and team. Without it, the team will always fail to reach their potential—and in the fire service, that could be fatal.
In the next column, I’d like to look at some of the other aspects of a dysfunctional team and how they relate to us in the fire service.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story