The Sum vs. the Parts

Building and maintaining organizational morale is one of a fire chief’s greatest goals, but it’s also one of their greatest challenges. Why should a fire chief care about morale? Because when employees are happy, customers receive better service, accidents and injuries occur less frequently, and grievances, discipline and absenteeism are minimized. Research conducted by industrial and organizational psychologists suggests that morale is related to job satisfaction. We’ve said it in the Shreveport Fire Department for years: “A working crew is a happy crew.” Job satisfaction is directly related to commitment. Committed firefighters become advocates for change. Change agents facilitate organizational transformation, and job satisfaction becomes a part of the culture.
On the other hand, job dissatisfaction proves costly for fire departments. Misery loves company, and dissatisfied personnel encourage dissatisfaction in others. Work ethic suffers when employees aren’t satisfied with their jobs. Violence, sabotage, a desire to quit and absenteeism are generally associated with fire departments where low morale festers. Customer complaints increase. Employees turn on one another, and they place most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the department’s leadership-primarily the fire chief.
Still, many well-meaning colleagues and friends believe the age-old clich‚, “You can’t please everybody, so don’t even try.” It’s true. It is extremely rare, if not impossible, to make decisions or achieve goals with everyone’s approval. Many fire chiefs use the “don’t even try” clich‚ as an excuse to not give their absolute best when engineering a positive work environment. True, some factors affecting morale are completely beyond the fire chief’s control, but any fire chief worth their salt should understand these factors and learn to use them to their advantage. I’ll discuss several of these factors below. In next month’s column, I’ll address theories that can help us determine organizational elements that can affect morale.
A good percentage of what impacts morale has little to do with an individual’s work environment. Studies indicate that individual differences-a person’s natural tendency to enjoy life and what they do for a living-have a great impact on morale.(1) In every fire department, there are enthusiastic personnel who enjoy every job assignment, people who constantly whine and complain and people who fluctuate between the two (the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde types). A firefighter who has always enjoyed working, friends and hobbies-even as a youngster-will enjoy their fire-service career because they have always enjoyed work and life. On the other hand, a firefighter who dreaded working and who had few friends and hobbies growing up will be miserable in their fire-service career because they have always been miserable.
By understanding individual differences, chiefs can identify desirable fire-service traits and make better hiring decisions. At Shreveport Fire, we use the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
We can categorize individual differences into three areas:
Genetic predisposition suggests that some degree of job satisfaction is predetermined through genes. For example, a rookie whose father has a reputation as a great employee and firefighter has a 30 percent chance of being like her dad. A rookie whose father has a reputation for being slothful has a 70 percent chance of being unlike his dad.
Core self-evaluations are personality traits that determine an individual’s propensity to enjoy their career. Affectivity corresponds with our outlook on life. Self-esteem corresponds with our self-worth. Self-efficacy corresponds with our ability to make a difference. Locus of control correlates to how much influence we feel we have on our destiny. Fire-department personnel with good morale have high positive affectivity, high self-esteem, high self-efficacy and a strong internal locus of control.
Life satisfaction corresponds to how satisfied a person is with all aspects of their life. Job satisfaction correlates with life satisfaction. Generally, employees who are happy in life are happy at work. When firefighters are happy with their personal lives, morale will be high. Firefighters who are unhappy in their personal lives will likely bring poor morale to the workplace. However, most firefighters who are unhappy in life and unhappy at work won’t leave the job because they are used to being unhappy.

All that being said, what can a fire chief do about individual differences?
1) Develop hiring procedures and use psychological tests to identify traits consistent with committed fire personnel; 2) Develop basic training curricula and orientation programs to educate new hires about job requirements and expectations; 3) Administer fair, equitable policies for rewards, special recognition and corrective action; and 4) Adopt a philosophy of contiguously adding value to every member of the department.
Easier said than done? You bet it is, but it can be done. Yet understanding individual difference theories is merely scratching the surface. Next month. we’ll examine the complexities of
discrepancy theory and equity theory to further equip fire chiefs to manage organizational morale.

1. Aamont, Michael G. 1999. “Applied Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3rd ed.” Belmont, Calif.; Wadsworth Publishing Company.

When discussing factors that affect morale, it is important to recognize a few key truths:
– 1: Morale is never as good as committed fire personnel say it is;
– 2: It’s never as bad as the whiners and complainers say it is;
– 3: Morale is not the sole responsibility of the chief. Although chief officers and company officers have a major impact on fire personnel’s morale, individual members bear responsibility for their own satisfaction with the job as well.

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