By Scott Cook
Published Monday, June 4, 2012
One of my favorite things to do is listen to leaders complain about their subordinates—fire and other public safety officials, elected officials, blue- and white-collar managers and supervisors. I’m not eavesdropping, mind you, simply listening to what these people want us to hear. Really! These leaders are usually just complaining because they want their subordinates to hear the conversation and then peer pressure their coworkers into complying with what leadership wants. But is this really an effective way of communicating expectations throughout the ranks?
A few weeks ago, I read a tweet by a fire service leader that said something to the effect of, “People will rise to your level of expectation, or fall to your level of tolerance.” Now I don’t disagree with what he said, and I understand his intent. But the quote is inaccurate because, to put it simply, there is no difference between your level of tolerance and your level of expectation—the level of performance you allow (your level of tolerance) is your level of expectation. If leadership tolerates less than what is expected—or if a problem isn’t dealt with as directly and as quickly as possible—then inaction reinforces the new standard.
So what is an appropriate level of expectation for your department? I can’t answer that question for you. But I will ask you to consider this: If your standards are anything less than excellence in the fundamentals of firefighting and professional conduct (for both career and volunteer firefighters), can you marshal a decent defense to your boss when the s*@t hits the fan? Can you defend your standards in explaining a near miss? Can you defend those standards in an injury event? What about an LODD?
As I write this, an apparatus manufacturer and a city are involved in a civil lawsuit because the standard of conduct for putting a new apparatus in service was lowered, and two firefighters were killed in a terrible accident. Accidents are preventable—and more often than not—they’re easily preventable. In this specific case, while it is reasonable to assume that the SOP for operating this piece of equipment required ladder belts for everyone on the elevated platform, the SOP hadn’t been written yet. According to the news report of witness testimony “... City policy forbade putting equipment in service before an SOP is written, despite the new truck being used in a fire at Cancun Dave’s restaurant weeks before the fatal training exercise.” (Kilgore News-Journal, May 11, 2012) Clearly, it’s easy to see how lowered expectations can play a role in tragedies.
Your lowered tolerance level could have an impact on the future—an impact that you may never be aware of. I’m reminded of a story from General Chuck Yeager’s autobiography “Yeager.” It seems that in the 1950s, the F86 Saber jet could go into a fatal roll. Yeager was asked to investigate this. To make a long story short, a bolt was put in upside-down for the simple reason that it was easier to put it in that way, directly contradicting what the assembly manual stated. When the stick was pushed too hard one-way, the upside-down bolt hung on another piece of the airframe and would not allow the stick to return to center, and the plane crashed. The worker responsible for the installation had no idea that this change was having such a grave impact on pilot safety. They had simply relaxed their standards to make their job easier. For some reason, it also passed inspection by the quality assurance department. That, in turn, equaled a new lower standard.
So the moral of the story is to set your standards high and accept nothing but full compliance from your crew. Course-correct as soon and discretely as possible. Don’t expect that the words you send out along the grapevine will make it all the way down the line—and affect any change. That makes you look weak and afraid of dealing with the problems you’ve created. Instead, expect your crew, and yourself, to meet exemplary standards. Don’t allow your level of tolerance to be a factor. Make sure your perception of your expectations is accurate and that your expectations are at the highest level.
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