By Ray Gayk
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012
| From the September 2012 Issue of FireRescue
In my last column, I wrote about the first of five key elements of a dysfunctional team: the absence of trust. All of the elements are discussed in detail in Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Like I mentioned in that column, a team cannot establish healthy relationships and successfully deal with problems without the existence of trust among its members. In this article, I will discuss the four remaining elements of a dysfunctional team: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.
#2 Fear of Conflict
In the fire service, fear of conflict is one of the most difficult challenges to overcome because we live together. So when conflict arises, there’s no getting away from it. But in a dysfunctional team that lacks trust among its members, the members are unable to speak freely and have unfiltered discussions about uncomfortable topics. As a result, they’re generally incapable of really engaging in conversation that may lead to conflict, because they’re unsure of the outcome or fear an attack, which stems from a lack of trust.
Having a lively debate about something is often considered a bad thing within an organization because the feeling of conflict causes anxiety, and debates can become emotional and even personal. However, having a lively debate is one of the healthiest things a team can do; it brings out the best ideas, develops a sense of trust and decreases the behind-the-back talk about other team members.
One of our goals as a team is to always figure out the best way to something. If team members are hesitant to share ideas for fear of conflict or criticism, the best ideas will rarely surface. But it’s important to remember that great ideas rarely come from one person. An idea may start with one person, but when it’s been vetted out, argued about and beat up by the team, it will most likely become an even better idea.
That type of discussion is one example of healthy conflict. But you can’t have healthy conflict if you don’t have trust—it’s impossible to have one without the other. If a team starts with a baseline of trust, the members can build onto and strengthen that trust as they realize they can disagree, have healthy debate, vet out the best ideas and still be a strong, cohesive team. A high-performing team should always strive to come up with the best solutions to a problem—but many times, that’s only achieved through healthy conflict.
When we have the courage to challenge our teammates face to face in front of the group, we usually achieve a better outcome. If we keep our thoughts and ideas to ourselves, but then talk about issues behind others’ backs, we’ve accomplished nothing productive and the issues will remain.
#3 Lack of Commitment
Ultimately, a team will come to a standstill or even migrate backward, reverting back to a safe, uncommitted state of mind, if the members aren’t committed to their group. Commitment stems from the following three key elements:
Clarity: If an officer doesn’t provide the team with a clear direction, a crew will generally do one of two things: freelance or lock up. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable in the fire service, but it’s hard to hit a target when you don’t know what the target looks like.
Buy-in: Having a team plan is great, but a plan is only effective if it comes with buy-in from the team. I used to think we needed everyone to agree, or at least have a consensus on something, before we moved forward with a plan. That may be acceptable, or even required, from time to time, but when we’re dealing with a high-performance team, it may not always be the right approach to take.
In short, buy-in doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with something; it means that overall, the team is committed to the mission, and each member will do their part to get the team where it needs to go.
Confidence: Agreeing to the mission while not necessarily agreeing on the smaller points of how to complete the mission stems from the confidence a team has developed with each other and their leader. As we all know, many fireground decisions must be made quickly, with little information, and they could have disastrous results if they turn out to be the wrong decisions. But if there’s no confidence between team members and team leaders, members will generally lock up for fear of failure. Remember: Most people don’t need to be right; they simply need to be heard. So, if a team has created an environment in which everyone can communicate in an open/honest fashion, then consensus isn’t usually necessary.
Talk It Out
One of the best ways a team can measure the success or failure of any decision is by critiquing the outcome. The worst thing we can do if an idea, action or decision fails is conceal it. Every critical decision we make should be measured by the team and others. When measuring decisions, be sure to ask a few simple, yet critical questions, such as, “What went wrong, and how do we fix it?” and “What went right and how do we capitalize on it?”
#4 Avoidance of Accountability
It’s been my experience that people use the word “accountability” a lot more than they practice it. When a team avoids accountability, it means they’re unwilling to deal with the uncomfortable parts of being a team.
Think about it: How often have you seen someone do something wrong, but you looked the other way? Or how many times have you seen someone else look the other way? The truth is, we all do it because it’s human nature, but any team that wants to perform at a high level must push through that “uncomfortable” feeling and do the right thing. First and foremost, we need to be accountable for our actions, and be able to accept responsibility when a teammate holds us accountable as well.
Example: We have a very good team that’s able to openly discuss anything. In other words, we don’t hold back; we can let it fly behind closed doors in the fire chief’s office. So, a few months back, we had a staff meeting that included all the deputy chiefs and the fire chief. During this meeting, the fire chief and I got into a lively, and perhaps even passionate, discussion, which isn’t unusual. After the meeting was over, I didn’t think much about the discussion and went about my business.
A while later, one of the deputy chiefs talked to me about the “lively” discussion. He wasn’t so concerned about the content or who was right or wrong; he was mostly concerned about my attitude and “borderline disrespect” I showed toward the fire chief.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I certainly would never want to be disrespectful to our chief, so naturally, I felt horrible and embarrassed—but I wasn’t upset with person who informed me of their perception of my behavior. He held me accountable for my actions, and I appreciated that he came forward and called me out, because if he hadn’t, I never would have known that that’s how some people perceived my actions in that meeting.
I later went to the chief and apologized. He told me it was no big deal, but it was a big deal for me, because someone took the time to tell me that they thought I had made a mistake, and they held me accountable. To me, that says something about our team. It says we can have open and honest discussions with each other and we will hold each other accountable when we make mistakes—signs of a very functional team.
#5 Inattention to Results
Of all the things I’ve covered in these last two columns about dysfunction, inattention to results is the most important, because it’s the most visual to our customers. If we’re lazy, don’t care or are undisciplined about what we do, it will be immediately obvious to our customers and competition. We must pay attention to results in our business. If we don’t, we could get someone hurt, or we could be out of a job.
Measuring success in our business is very easy. All we have to do is measure our results on every incident:
- Did we put ourselves in a good position to respond quickly and safely? To find out, measure response and reflex times.
- Did we train hard (and smart) enough? Measure this by honestly critiquing your performance.
- How was our customer service? Just ask your customers.
Inattention to results often happens when teams become satisfied with their performance or complacent. But if you don’t learn or reinforce a lesson on every call, you’re kidding yourself. We must always challenge ourselves and our teams to do better, and never be satisfied with what we did yesterday.
A Final Note
Dysfunctional teams are common in the fire service; however, if you believe you’re a member of a dysfunctional team, all is not lost. By understanding the key concepts in this article (and my previous article), you can start to work toward more functional behaviors, such as improving communication between team members, asking your officer for clear direction, holding yourself and other team members accountable when you make a mistake, etc. It may not be the most enjoyable process, but it will result in a better functioning team—and that will result in better service to your community.
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