Unit Cohesion: Harnessing the Ultimate Killer of Low Morale

Photo: Alan Levine

By Jarrod Sergi

I get the fortunate opportunity to travel around the country and talk with firefighters from many organizations. The conversations can include topics such as what we send on a first alarm to policy specific inquires and, of course, good fire and EMS calls. There is usually some discussion about the structure of the organization and how many officers and chiefs in key positions there are. Out of all that conversation, there is one chief who is nowhere to be found. I have yet to see him on an organizational chart or on the payroll somewhere. I am talking of about the morale chief.

I am not here to tell you that chief officers shouldn’t be concerned with firefighter morale. I think that it is very important, and if I ever become a chief, I would like to think that morale would be one of my concerns. I am, however, here to tell you, that I am firm believer in the fact that 90 percent of low morale problems are fixed right there in the firehouse and not at headquarters. I believe that unit cohesion is the antidote for low morale, and it’s the company officer who needs to ensure that unit cohesion exists within the walls of the firehouse.

Unit cohesion is not a new concept. It dates back hundreds of years to the battlefield. Genghis Khan, Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, MacArthur, and more all know what it took to create unit cohesion and the importance of maintaining it. So, what is unit cohesion? It is essentially a set of qualities or characteristics that allow a unit to remain functional in all conditions from peace to battle. The ultimate test of that cohesion is how well a team accomplishes the mission under times of great pressure or dire straits.

There are really two types of cohesion: social cohesion and task cohesion. Social cohesion is the extent to which team members like each other, prefer to spend their social time together, and feel emotionally close to one another. Task cohesion is the shared commitment among members to achieve a goal that requires the collective efforts of the group. If you have a team with high task cohesion, it has members who share a common goal and who are motivated to coordinate their efforts as a team to achieve that goal. You can definitely have both, but the ultimate goal for any team and the leader of that team is to focus on task cohesion.

If task cohesion is achieved, it can naturally lead to strong social cohesion. Teams that have strong task cohesion are mission focused and ready to get the job done. Mission-focused teams focus on training, accountability, and high standards. Be careful about being satisfied with simply achieving social cohesion. Maybe you have seen that firehouse. The one full of a bunch of “nice members” who get along well, have fun together at work, but lack mission focus and maybe even competency.

Morale can be defined as the mental or emotional condition of an individual or group with regard to the function or task at hand. Typically, when I hear people talk about morale problems, it is simply a symptom and not the disease. There are many underlying causes of low morale. As a company officer, if they are within your control to change/fix, that’s what you do, but remember that the morale chief is not coming to help you. Take ownership of the low morale problem, and make strides to improve it. The first thing that you should do is be able to recognize the contributors to low morale. They are as follows:

  • Lack of trust.
  • Poor communication/lack of transparency.
  • No appreciation.
  • Poor leadership at any level.
  • No clear development plan for employees.
  • Lack of incentive.

By simply recognizing these top contributing factors, you can ensure your firefighters at the company level are taken care of. While you can’t give pay raises or promote the people you would like, you have the ability to build and maintain trust, you can give people a pat on the back when deserved, and you can model behavior based on the leader you want to work for. You can show a genuine interest in the professional development of your crews. They need to see that you have a vested interest in their success. People want to feel like they are a part of something. Create that environment for them.

Is morale in the toilet in your firehouse or department? Some indicators that it could be are the following:

  • Changes in attitude.
  • Hyperactive rumor mill.
  • Lack of initiative.
  • Poor performance.
  • Low energy or motivation.

Building Unit Cohesion

If you have seen these symptoms of low morale, there is only one solution: Focus on unit cohesion and the morale problem will dissipate if not disappear altogether. If you can achieve unit cohesion in your team, that is a full-time action that is constantly taking place among the team and its membership as opposed to morale or motivation that can have ups and downs within individuals.

My current team has a high level of unit cohesion. Motivation levels go up and down, including mine as the leader. The one constant that will remain though is that unit cohesion, because we have worked hard to achieve that. So, how do we achieve this unit cohesion? We need to focus on the following.

Establishing Trust

Above all else, lead by example. This can be tough at times, but the first step in building trust and even credibility is to lead by example. Your crew needs to know that you would never ask them to do something you either haven’t already done or are willing to do yourself. If you want them to have great attitudes, you better have a positive attitude. If you are going to preach to them about professional development, you better be doing the same. Building conditions of trust in your firehouse is the first step. Your crew members need to know they can trust you with everything. That includes everything from ordering T-shirts to having difficult conversations and stressful decision making on the fireground. They have to trust you with everything!

Build Relationships

Take the time to build relationships with your crew members. Ask them questions about their family, kids, and hobbies. Get to know what inspires them, upsets them, and drives their high performance. If you get the opportunity to push yourself away from the desk or the computer, do it. Then go out to the bay floor or the kitchen table and grab a cup of coffee and mingle with the crew. Yes, they need to see you as the leader or the supervisor, but they also need to see you as just one of the members on the team. They need to see that you have a genuine interest and desire to build strong relationships.

Show Appreciation

This sounds really simple, but sometimes it can be the easiest to forget. If you have already set some positive expectations, you may see every action or decision your firefighters make as just doing the job. That may be true, but it feels good to be recognized for doing a good job. Give someone a pat on the back when they deserve it, and give them praise in front of their peers.

Stay Mission Focused

Keep what you raised you right hand to do a priority. Staying mission focused means constantly maintaining a mindset where you are ready to perform at the highest level every time that brass hits for a call. Mission focused means training together and working hard to live up to the expectations of the citizens you swore that oath to protect. Being mission focused means your head is in the game the whole shift. It means simply being a good, competent firefighter is your number one mission when you walk through the doors of the firehouse–not how many cold calls you can get done for your business or how many lawns you can book while you’re at the firehouse. Does this mean no downtime? Of course not. Just remember, high morale and unit cohesion are built when teams train together and see the value of the training when they execute in the field. That’s where the intrinsic reward comes from. Take advantage of some downtime; just don’t lose that mission-focused mindset. Mission comes first.

I have seen some officers who muddy the waters between mission and crew. They lose the ultimate sight of leadership. I commonly see this is newer officers and senior officers. There is this thought that the crew needs to be satisfied and that will ultimately lead to better morale. We need to take a close look at the difference between mission satisfaction and crew satisfaction. One can be viewed as satisfaction from happiness and content and the other from productivity and mission accomplishment. Common sense may tell you that if you have happy and satisfied firefighters, they will get the job done better and faster. You may think to yourself, “If I can just keep them happy, they will get the job done and want to work hard.” That is not always the case. Mission accomplishment is what builds morale and the esprit de corps more often than just keeping someone satisfied. Mission accomplishment and seeing the fruits of their labor, the reward, are what drive morale far more than just keeping someone satisfied. Yes, satisfied firefighters are still a good thing; whenever possible, you should strive for a balance of both. There may be times when you can’t balance both and, in that case, you have to choose one over the other, and the mission comes first.

If you are a firefighter or a company officer, you have near total control over morale. Unit cohesion is the killer of that low morale. Take charge of your firehouse; take charge of your responsibility; and always remember to look after your crews, train hard, and stay mission focused. If we do that, morale can be at an all-time high in your firehouse.

Jarrod Sergi is a captain with Norfolk (VA) Fire Rescue assigned to an engine company. He has had previous assignments as a ladder company lieutenant and fire academy coordinator. He also serves as an adjunct state instructor for both the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and the National Fire Academy focusing on Mayday, strategy/tactics, and high-rise operations. He is an instructor with Real Fire Training LLC. Prior to working for Norfolk, he served in the United States Navy as a damage controlman and a search and rescue swimmer. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. 

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