By Mike Clements
There’s an old saying around fire stations across the country: You can leave a $20 bill on the kitchen table and it’ll stay there forever, but the half-life of a dozen chip cookies of chocolate left in the kitchen is about 20 minutes or less. Most firefighters are good, honest people. There are subtle things people do sometimes that might not seem so bad at first glance, but that break trust and cause a lot of damage.
Make no mistake: integrity and trust are cornerstones of the fire service culture. These are must-haves for front-line employees like newly promoted corporate executives. Our environment can be intense, chaotic and dangerous. Without relationships of trust, the risk of serious and even tragic consequences is much greater. When you ask people to do hard things, there absolutely has to be a very strong element of trust.
What happens when we lack confidence around the kitchen table, on the shift, or in service? In my own career, I have seen trust diminish in leaders and in subordinates. When it does, it’s usually very bad for everyone. Our culture is rapidly deteriorating. The job we all love becomes the job some come to just for a paycheck. Engagement decreases and organizations begin to experience higher turnover. These kinds of trust issues lead to high-strung, fearful employees who are secretive with information, micromanaging leaders, and so on.
A lack of trust is particularly detrimental to newcomers (members for one to five years) and high achievers. Newcomers quickly develop bad habits because they assume what they see is “normal.” As for the most successful, they are usually the ones who end up leaving. It’s no secret what happens to an organization when its best people leave.
The good news is that most leaders and employees genuinely want to work in an environment of trust. In fact, sometimes people who do things that erode trust don’t realize they’re doing something wrong or don’t understand how damaging their actions can be.
The first step to establishing trust is to learn the actions that undermine trust. Read on to discover seven “trust breakers” that could harm your fire department.
Trust Buster #1: Pretending to know something when you don’t. Admitting that we don’t know something can be uncomfortable, so sometimes people pretend otherwise. But healthy organizations make people feel safe to say, “I don’t know.” This is more important than ever in the fire service. Being honest when you don’t understand critical information helps prevent unnecessary risk and injury. Make sure people feel comfortable admitting when they need to review best practices and policies or when they need more training. If you’re pretending to know something, it’s only a matter of time before your crew finds out, and it will be too late.
Trust Buster #2: Not Admitting When You’re Wrong. To maintain trust and build strong relationships, leaders and employees must own up to their mistakes. But too often, egos get in the way. Work as a team on developing humility so that the work culture allows people to admit their mistakes and correct their course. When you say you’re wrong, you’re modeling vulnerability, which is a major trust factor.
Trust Buster #3: Say “white” lies.” What’s wrong with calling in sick to pop in on the weekend? Or tell a little lie to avoid a reprimand for a minor mistake? Using “white lies” to avoid uncomfortable situations may seem harmless, but it spreads misinformation and harms relationships. And not only are “white lies” a gateway to more serious lies (with potentially greater consequences), but they can also be a red flag that the lie is unhappy with their job or signal concerns. workplace culture issues.
To combat “white lies” at work, encourage people to tell the truth no matter what. It also includes giving false impressions and lying by omission. Radical truthfulness is hard, but it ultimately enables a safer and healthier workplace.
Trust Buster #4: Tolerate cynicism. Smirking, sarcasm, and cynicism can infect your team’s culture and become toxic. Sure, it’s less “cool” to be serious and nice, but these qualities are the basis for building trust and bonding. Take a close look at your organization. Are the people open, sincere and kind or biting and cruel? If the latter is present, there is probably a culture of distrust and people do not feel safe.
Trust Buster #5: Prohibit errors and failures. When firefighters fear failure, they cannot do their best. Leaders must create an atmosphere of psychological safety and self-monitor to ensure they are setting a great example for others to follow. This means encouraging new ideas and never reprimanding an employee for honest mistakes or shortcomings.
Trust Buster #6: Overcome employee difficulties (emotional and mental). The past few years have shown us how important it is for organizations to recognize worker well-being. Destigmatize mental health issues. Be understanding when someone’s personal life impacts the work day. Encourage workers in difficulty to take the time necessary to regroup or ask for help.
Trust Buster #7: Toxic Leadership. Toxic leaders erode trust and create dysfunction. Leaders need to look in the mirror and evaluate their behaviors. If you are leading through fear or intimidation, work to stop it immediately and make positive changes. Treat people with respect. If you can accommodate a worker’s special request, do so graciously. Ask others for feedback, even if they criticize your performance. Always do what you say you will do.
The first and most important thing we can do as fire chiefs is recognize when we are engaging in these trust-breaking behaviors and make immediate changes to our behavior. Then we have to be diligent in monitoring them in our team. These behaviors should not be tolerated. If you see these actions happening, address them, not just for your team today, but for the long-term development of your team members. If you recognize many of these trust-eroding examples, work through them one at a time. A healthier workplace will become more confident and safer for all team members.
mike clements is the Deputy Chief of Administration and an 18-year veteran of the Cy-Fair Fire Department in Houston, Texas. He also works as a battalion chief with the College Station (TX) Fire Department. He specializes in human resources, relationship management, labour-management relations and grant writing. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Stephen F. Austin State University and an undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University.