By Author(s): Marc Revere 
Published Sunday, April 1, 2012
Here’s a set of questions for fire chiefs or chief officers:
- Do you trust your command staff?
- Do they trust you?
- Does the rank-and-file trust you? Do you trust them?
- Do you have the will and skill to exercise your legitimate position power to ensure things are done, with or without their trust?
Recently, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) published an article in Public Management by John Hamm called “Trustworthy Leaders.” The opening line states, “Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is; probably not.”
With minor exceptions, I couldn’t agree more. This stems from the basic fact of how we define trust. Trust is situational; there isn’t just one definition. To illustrate that, think about how many times you’ve heard someone say, “I totally trust him on the fireground but…” Nice guy, good with the public but…” Her EMS skills are awesome but….”
What we’re saying is, I trust him/her in one aspect BUT not in everything. Put simply, professional trust isn’t unconditional.
Trust Requires a Relationship
To further complicate this issue, to trust someone, you generally need to have a relationship with them. You have heard this before: All relationships are based upon trust.
Now, it is true that we frequently place trust in those we don’t know—think of being a passenger on an airplane. You trust the pilot to navigate you safely to your destination. But this isn’t trust in the person, it’s trust in their title/authority. Remember the paramilitary adage: We respect the position but not necessarily the person.
Let’s say the fire chief is three levels removed from the firefighters in the hierarchy, and they do not work closely with each other or socialize, and haven’t worked together on projects. No relationship, right? When asked about trust and the fire chief, these firefighters will oftentimes say, “I don’t know her/him well enough to say I trust them.” Fair enough.
But is that a problem? Members may not trust you because they don’t really know you, or know what you do—but I would argue that’s OK. Leaders must remember that their operating domain (strategic and policy) is different from that of most members (tactical and task) and as such, it is difficult for the members to understand. And what we don’t understand, we don’t trust.
When You Need It, When You Don’t
There are more than a few books focusing on trust, some from a personal perspective, and others on marketing products, companies or individuals. All of them suggest that trust is the panacea to solving organizational, motivational and personal problems. I do not believe this is true, nor do I believe it is possible.
But if we can’t expect everyone in the fire department to trust one another at all times, when do we require trust?
First and foremost, trust between crewmembers is essential to being safe and effective on the fireground. Firefighters need to trust other firefighters. Firefighters must also trust their captain. In turn, captains must develop a thorough understanding of their firefighters’ capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. They must trust the other captains and their chief officer. The chief officers need to trust the officers and the chief they work with. The fire chief needs to trust the command staff.
The bottom line: What is important within the organization is not whether the troops trust you, but do they trust one another, and most importantly their immediate officer. Because if they don’t, you have a serious problem.
Indicators of Trust for Supervisors
How do you know whether your organization fosters interdependent trust?
In 1965, Bruce Tuckman identified four stages to team development that are essential for the team to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions and work together while delivering results.
- Forming. The first stage of team building is the forming of the team, where there is a desire to be accepted by the others and avoid controversy or conflict. Serious issues and feelings are avoided as members gather information and impressions about each other. This is a comfortable stage, but avoidance of conflict and threat means that not much actually gets accomplished.
- Storming. Next comes the storming stage, in which different ideas compete for consideration. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful. Team members open up to each other and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives. This is very easy to observe. During this time, supervisors need to be visible and accessible, direct in their guidance and decision-making.
- Norming. In the norming stage, mutual respect develops. Some members subordinate their own ideas and agree with others in order to make the team function. In this stage, all team members take responsibility for the success of the team’s goals. This is the ideal phase, and one leaders can use to judge optimum performance.
- Performing. It is possible for some teams to reach the performing stage, similar to peak performance, or Maslow’s self-actualization. These high-performing teams are able to function and get the job done smoothly and effectively without inappropriate conflict or the need for external supervision. They are motivated, knowledgeable, competent, autonomous and able to handle the decision-making process without supervision. Note: This doesn’t mean the members agree all the time. Rather, they embrace dissent, play the devil’s advocate role and challenge one another through positive means. Supervisors play a participative role during this stage.
Many mature crews cycle through these stages as they react to changing circumstances. Especially when there is a change in leadership, a dominant informal leader may cause the team to revert to storming, i.e., to challenge the existing norms.
In addition, it’s easy to measure results derived from trust anywhere within the organization using the following matrix:
- Do the employees feel safe in their working environment?
- Do they take risks?
- Do they go the extra mile?
- Are they engaged and involved?
Other indicators of trust within the fire department include positive customer service response and/or letters, active member involvement in special projects and/or programs, and volunteering for committees or extra assignments. These are strong indicators that personnel are engaged and involved for the betterment of the organization.
Creating & Maintaining Trust
Ways of creating and maintaining organizational trust include:
- Always send a consistent message. Over-communicate and ensure the management team communicates the same message.
- Ensure consistent standards are applied to all members.
- Don’t play favorites; follow all policies.
- Don’t ignore troubling behaviors of members or crews.
- Bring issues to the surface. Address the elephant in the room.
- Address all known rumors.
Any change initiated within the organization typically has an initial negative effect on performance and motivation. However, remember the first point in the above list—over-communicate. This gets the leader and followers closer to transparency, bringing the members closer to understanding, even if they don’t like the change or message. It’s human nature for members not to trust what they don’t understand.
Now that we’ve spent so much time talking about trust, here’s the caveat: Achievement-oriented leaders are not overly concerned with obtaining trust and respect, or being loved or liked. This doesn’t mean they don’t care for their members. The very reason they joined the fire service was to be a part of something bigger and more important than themselves. They do have a high concern for influencing outcomes for the betterment of the organization. They worry about safety, operational readiness, budget, etc., and they implement programs to support those concerns—sometimes at the expense of (perceived) trust.
The trouble with trust is some leaders put too much emphasis on trying to obtain it at the expense of doing their job. Stop worrying about whether everyone in the department trusts and likes you, and start worrying about whether your crews trust and work well with one another. That trust is key to delivering the results your citizens expect and to ensure everyone comes home.
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