Eliminating Negative Narrative in Your Department Through Better Communication Strategy

To move the organization forward, everyone must do their part in tackling communication issues and chip away at stopping the negativity narrative.
There has never been a greater time to tap into the greatest asset in an organization–your people. If you want to know where your problems are in your organization, ask members at all levels. If you want to know the solutions, ask. (Photos courtesy of IFD.)

The weaker the communication, the weaker the department

By Candace Ashby and Rita Reith

Communication issues plague many public safety organizations, often providing the impetus to negatively impact morale, productivity, performance, and ultimately customer service.  Agencies that take the time to identify, acknowledge, and address their own internal communications weaknesses stand a much better chance at overall buy-in, better cooperation, and healthy transitions from private to promoted ranks.  Small changes in the way we listen to each other and reinforce positive exchanges of ideas will reap large benefits and produce good outcomes for the organization.  This article is designed to engage discussion among your membership about how lifting your organization from the bottom up will make you stronger and more productive.

Communication is the foundation of any organization.  Experience will tell you, the weaker the communication, the weaker the organization.  Issues among your team will certainly lead to misunderstandings, and misunderstandings generate mistrust and low morale.  Ironically, the only way to fix it is with better and clear communication.  It is well known that negativity will fill gaps that exist in communications. The challenge for us as leaders is to use strategies that help us eliminate those gaps before they become craters.

Much like deadly carbon monoxide gas will render a person unconscious without warning, negative narratives are the toxic thread that can bring an organization to its knees. Almost every organization has their share of chronic complainers who do their part in creating a negative narrative.  Known as 20-percenters (20%) or fringe complainers, these folks are often the most vocal and least happy no matter what the issue. One example of this is the often-complained-about divide between a department’s administration and suppression divisions.  Fringe complainers in suppression blame everything on administration and truly believe all problems will go away once the administration changes. This could not be further from the truth.

For most departments, sworn personnel in the administration started out in suppression. They first learned the ropes as a firefighter; may have gone through several promotion processes; and, at some point, applied for or were assigned to a position in the administration.

On the other hand, those in administration are quickly exhausted by the constant negative narrative as they work every angle to get resources needed for the department.  Without effective two-way communication, this can lead to the presumption that most people in the operations division are chronic complainers and, hence, the gap widens. The reality is that the other 80%, are high performers who want to come to work and do their job well. When put in the same basket as the complainers, morale declines, communications suffer, and eventually more people become part of the negative narrative.

For most departments, sworn personnel in the administration started out in suppression.  They first learned the ropes as a firefighter; may have gone through several promotion processes; and, at some point, applied for or were assigned to a position in the administration. While the suppression role remains focused on the mission of saving lives, property, and the environment, the now firefighter administrator must learn new skill sets, including budget writing, policies and procedures, and labor/management negotiation.  Each of these components is vital to ensuring that those in suppression have the tools they need to carry out the mission.   While everyone learns the ropes as recruit firefighters, not everyone can be in administration, nor should they be.

If you are in the fire service long enough, chances are you will work for more than one administration. However, no matter how many times an administration changes, there will be problems. Same, different, large, or small, the bottom line is that there is always something that can be improved. No organization is 100% problem free.

Organizations are full of good people, willing to do their part in making their organization better.  Both the operations and administration play a critical role in the success of the organization.  To build a strong team organization, allow for input from the “boots on the ground” level, mid-level managers, and the top of the organization chart as often as possible.  This allows for representation from all levels to provide multiple layers of insight from the outset. Doing this helps to get everyone in the organization on the same page and going in the same direction. This is no easy task with an “us vs. them” mentality woven into the organizational fabric.

An officer offering praise to his engineer for a job well done doesn’t need to wait until you get back to the firehouse. This important feedback takes just a minute and goes a long way in acknowledging everyone’s role on the fireground.

On the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department (IFD), Chief Ernest Malone puts this concept into practice with any broad change made to a department general order or standard operating procedure.  While a deputy chief is ultimately tasked with addressing the proposed change, the deputy chief’s directive from Chief Malone is to first develop a committee to review the issue, research and develop possible solutions, and bring forth the recommendation.  The committee is expected to be diverse in rank, seniority, experience, and gender.  Members on the committee bring valuable input to the discussion table from other members on the IFD.  Once the recommendations are reviewed, the chief will take the most appropriate course of action for the benefit of the entire department. 

The solution to eliminating the “us vs. them” mentality is to build a bridge of transparent communication between the administration and operations divisions.  It is a well-known fact that change is much easier to accept when communication flows in both directions.  Transparency allows for a better understanding of the “why,” which, in turn, gives members ownership of their work.  Despite the fire service being a paramilitary style concept, no one likes to be “told” what to do.  Bringing both sides together will take a shift in mindset, with a strong focus on mid-level supervisors.  These supervisors play a critical role by connecting the top to the bottom of the organization.  With pride and ownership comes the opportunity to bring about real change.  

Good leaders communicate the mission clearly and ensure that those tasked with carrying it out understand why the directive is important. Transparency allows for a better understanding of the “why,” which, in turn, gives members ownership in their work.

The old adage, “If you just ignore it, it will go away,” should never be part of your mindset.  The consequences of not addressing a widening communication gap will lead to continued misunderstanding and negativity while organizational growth becomes stifled. This leads to lower morale, disengaged employees, lower productivity, and lower performance.  This can easily be addressed through officer development training (ODT); however, time and budget constraints leave ODT lacking at most departments.  On the IFD, newly promoted officers are required to attend 40 hours of ODT for their merit level each time they are promoted. Quarterly officer training is held for all officers, with each four-hour session addressing relevant topics, leadership, training, or operations, just to name a few. 

It is our opinion that there are not many classes offered in the fire service in effective communications other than those that exist around radio communications or report writing.   Chief Malone would agree.  It is this kind of input he appreciates and knows that a well-balanced organization is a well-functioning organization.  Seeking ways to address this is a priority.  We too are a work in progress, and it is important for IFD to incorporate this training into not only its quarterly ODT but department-wide as well.

Managing the day-to-day activities that will help the organization meet its goals and succeed is the most fundamental responsibility an officer accepts.  Randomly select any officer and ask them what their organization’s goals are and what they are doing to help meet them.  Do they know them?  Has the chief communicated them?  Is there a weekly or monthly e-mail or newsletter from the chief illustrating the overall goals?  On the IFD, we receive a very comprehensive chief’s newsletter, about every 60 days, with information from each division and then some.  But receiving it is only half the battle.  Are you as a leader engaging your firefighters in discussion to ensure they understand the information or have any suggestions?  This is a great opportunity to stem the tide of negative narrative, stop rumors before they start, and strengthen the lines of communication.

There were and are too many officers who do not have a good understanding of their position and how to use it to influence others. Ask any officer what their job is, and many will tell you that they supervise their crew on a scene to get the job done. This is true; however, it is only one small piece of an officer’s job.  This lack of fundamental understanding is not simply the officer’s fault.  We as a fire service can and should do better in teaching officers to think big picture. The good news is that with the right training, this can be turned around. 

To build a strong team, organizations should allow for input from the “boots on the ground” level, mid-level managers, and the top of the organization chart as often as possible.

A supervisor will need to rely on leadership and management skills to help them manage day-to-day activities.  New and non-promoted firefighters will often seek input from their officers to help define their personal vision. The officer plays an important and integral role in motivating them to achieve that vision. All leadership within an organization, from bottom to top, must develop and display both management and leadership skills.  Perfecting these skills is a continual work in progress, and no matter how many years you have on the job or where you land in seniority, you should always be willing to teach and learn.

To move the organization forward, everyone must do their part in tackling communication issues and chip away at stopping the negativity narrative.  We as a fire service need to work on building stronger, more confident supervisors at all levels who will then use their influence to activate the masses to achieve greatness. How do we do that? By giving them what they need to do their jobs better, which includes support, training, education, experience, mentoring, and accountability. We must reinforce and empower all members to understand the critical role they play in the organization’s solution and success.  

Encourage and rely on senior firefighters to take new ones under their wing and show them the ropes. Officers should mentor firefighters, and battalion chiefs should mentor their officers.

Officers up and down the chain of command need to be both confident and competent in their abilities. Some of that confidence comes with time in their role and time on the job.  Some comes from good mentoring and having a sounding board to go to for advice.  Often, an officer’s lack of confidence will lead to sidestepping an issue and letting someone else handle the situation.  With training, time, and mentorship, as officers become more confident in their abilities, they will help others in return.

The fire service seems to be much better at top-down communication and lackluster when it comes to bottom-up communication. This is another area that could use some improvement–providing ongoing management and leadership training so our officers are better equipped with the knowledge to tackle issues that can and should be handled at their level. In addition, departments can put together a career development plan if they do not currently have one and support minimum education requirements with certain positions. Take it a step further and set up a partnership with a local community college.  The IFD has a comprehensive career development plan that is available to view on the IFD Web site.   

Delegate more.  Provide opportunities and experience to grow and learn such as filling in for a supervisor or leading a committee.  Encourage and rely on senior firefighters to take new ones under their wing and show them the ropes. Officers should mentor firefighters, and battalion chiefs should mentor their officers.

Be accountable. Accountability, or lack thereof, is another common topic when looking at issues that plague organizations and is usually tied to communication issues. Hold others accountable by over-communicating expectations so that your people know them; then help them when they are not meeting the expectations.

Listen better. Effective communication is the common thread between addressing issues and effective solutions, from understanding what our job is to finding better ways to do it. Being a better communicator must begin with being an active listener.  It is amazing how much we can learn from listening when we slow down enough to do it. 

There has never been a greater time to tap into the greatest asset in an organization–your people. If you want to know where your problems are in your organization, ask members at all levels. If you want to know the solutions, ask.  Then commit yourself to listen.  Really listen.  You might be surprised how much you will learn.  The success of the least senior person in your organization should be as important as the most senior, with everyone in between creating the bridge.

Small changes in the way we listen to each other and reinforce positive exchanges of ideas will reap large benefits and produce good outcomes for the organization.

Don’t get caught up in negative narrative and allow that to divide your organization. In sports, a coach’s job is to help the players perform at their natural best. The head coach and coaching staff are not on the field playing; they are directing the players who play the game. They tap into the minds and hearts of the players as individuals and make them want to be better.  Without strong coaching and leadership on the field, sports teams would have a hard time winning games.  The same goes for officers and firefighters.  Enthusiasm and energy are contagious.  The foundation of long-lasting organizational change must be planted and tended so we as a fire service culture can effect positive change.  It all starts with effective communications.     

Dr. Candace Ashby has more than 30 years of fire service experience and is a battalion chief with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. Her educational background includes a doctorate of management in organizational leadership. She is president of Key Fire Investigations and ELITE Public Safety Consulting.

Rita Reith is a 27-year veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department, is a merit battalion chief, and serves as the department’s sole public information officer.

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