The firehouse kitchen table is one of my favorite places. It’s where we enjoy each other’s company, share some truly fine meals, bust each other’s chops and solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately, the kitchen table also has a negative side; it’s where we spread rumors, talk trash about things we might not fully understand and, in general, spread hate and discontent. This negative behavior existed long before I came around, and I’m sure it will continue long after I leave.
To be honest, we all participate in this behavior. In fact, I challenge everyone to find one person in the fire service who hasn’t dabbled in the art of negative behavior. So now that we’ve established that we’re all guilty, we can begin dealing with the issue at hand.
Managing negative, miserable people is hard work and unfortunately isn’t done often enough. How many times have you sat around the firehouse listening to someone go off on a tangent, throw a fit, whine, snivel or complain about something? Too many to count, right? Now ask yourself how many times someone has put them in their place. If your department is like most organizations, this behavior goes largely unchecked.
If you happen to work for a perfect department and have no clue what I’m talking about, following are some characteristics of a negative person, so if you encounter someone like this, you’ll be able to identify them.
- Always provides sufficient excuses for not doing his job;
- Criticizes others for doing their jobs;
- Trash talks about people who try to better themselves or the department;
- Quickly disregards others’ opinions, regardless of their knowledge;
- Always possesses a good conspiracy theory;
- Deflects notice of personal shortcomings by pointing out everyone else’s; and
- Always seems to know what’s wrong with the organization, not what’s right, but doesn’t know how to fix it.
If you encounter someone who possesses one or more of the above-mentioned characteristics, you could be dealing with a negative person. (There are many other characteristics I could list, but I have limited space.)
The Cycle of Negativity
Negativity is one of the most contagious human behaviors. Think about someone in your organization who fits in the negative category. What was that person like when he was new? Was he always that way or did someone have a hand in influencing his behavior? I would argue that someone probably showed him how to be negative. And the cycle doesn’t end there: Now, the new negative person can pass on his attitude to someone else.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest people in the fire service; I’ve also worked with some of the most miserable, negative, self-serving people I’ve ever met. I know some officers with reputations for sitting around all day bad-mouthing everything and anything. These people would complain if they won a million dollars because it wasn’t two million. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a 24-hour shift with one of these people. As a firefighter, I’ve turned down overtime to avoid dealing with negative people, especially if they were supervisors.
Why do people get away with this type of behavior in the workplace? Because they always have an audience that’s willing to sit around and listen to their utter nonsense. The fact that they have an audience at all amazes me sometimes, because the negative people are generally the same people who don’t do anything for the department. They’re very good at doing nothing and complaining about everything. But it makes sense if you consider group dynamics. People generally don’t like conflict and don’t like to stand out; in a group environment, they have a very strong desire to fit in.
Recently, my battalion chief, Floyd Clark, shared with me an interesting article called “Right, Wrong? In a group, it’s harder to tell” by Shari Roan. The article, published in the Los Angeles Times on July 17, focused on the idea that people are less likely to do the right thing if they’re in a group. In the article, James Waller, psychology professor and author of “Becoming Evil,” discussed the fact that when interviewed alone, people say they would object to, leave or intervene during a bad situation. But in reality, when in a group, they react differently: “There is a moral paralysis that comes with the situation. People think ‘there are other[s] standing by me not doing [anything]. Why is it incumbent upon me to act when other people aren’t?’ People caught up in these situations often look around to other bystanders for clues on how to behave. If no one responds, everyone assumes it’s OK to do nothing.”
From my observations around the firehouse, the exact same thing occurs when someone decides to turn down a negative road. Generally speaking, everyone sits and watches the show, sometimes stoking the fire if given a chance. How often have you watched someone go on a rant, but said nothing, even when you disagreed or could provide information that would alleviate the person’s frustration?
The Company Officer’s Role
Everyone has a bad day now and then, and everyone is entitled to blow off steam. If we weren’t allowed to vent in the fire service, we’d become a bunch of lunatics; we are our own support group. This type of behavior is generally acceptable and necessary for a healthy environment. What is not acceptable is when supervisors allow constant negative behavior.
Company officers are responsible for their attitude and the attitude of their crew. This can test your abilities as a supervisor because it takes a great deal of work and tremendous patience. Dealing with a negative person is extremely uncomfortable because of the potential outcome. Negative people tend to take things personally and blow things out of proportion, so most supervisors prefer not to deal with the problem. But captains who don’t know how to handle negative behavior or choose to ignore it have a difficult time reeling in the reins when the behavior goes on too long. I’m sure you’ve observed negative companies in your departments. Want to find the source? Look at the person in charge-he either allows it or cultivates it. Some officers are like cancers within the organization; they may leave someday, but they will leave their disease behind when they go. And if your organization isn’t strong enough to stomp out the source, it will just continue to grow.
So how can we correct this? Is there a fix to this problem? I’m not sure there’s a quick and easy fix, but company officers must try. One firefighter I work with, Brian Shropshire, proposed an annual “call-out day,” where we’d each have the opportunity to call out anyone in the department once a year and settle some scores “old-school” style. So if you have a problem with someone, you could simply take care of it in the back of the station, “mano a mano.” (These confrontations actually occurred in many fire stations before lawyers and political correctness got their claws into the fire service.) I wonder, if people knew they might get an ass whooping once a year, would they be more careful about what spilled out of their mouths? I know some people who would probably get called out more than once.
I looked into Brian’s suggestion, but of course my chief told me we couldn’t hold an annual call-out day. Well, you never know unless you ask, but you must admit it would change some attitudes and it might even be a little fun.
I mentioned that negativity is one of the most contagious human behaviors; fortunately, so is positivity. Remember: Crewmembers play off your attitude. If you give an inherently negative person the opportunity to be negative, he’ll take it.
When negative behavior becomes a habit, you must confront the problem immediately. Below, I’ve outlined a few effective ways to deal with and prevent negative behavior.
- Recognize your own negativity and improve those problem areas first. You can’t always control other people’s behavior, but you can certainly control your own.
- Combat negativity by being a positive influence. When a supervisor becomes a role model, exudes a positive attitude and does his job, most crewmembers fall in line.
- Find out what motivates the negative person(s) and then get them involved in something that challenges them and of which they can take ownership. People are often negative because they aren’t being challenged or they lack direction.
- Be consistent in your words and actions. Employees need consistency. If you’re inconsistent, crews can fall apart because they don’t know if they’re working with Captain Jekyll or Captain Hyde.
- Listen to your employees, and accept their input. When you were a firefighter, remember when your captain actually listened and followed through with one of your ideas? Didn’t contributing make you feel good?
- Communicate clearly to your employees, especially about emergencies. It’s very frustrating when you can’t effectively relay your needs; your firefighters pay the price by having to guess.
- When necessary, be brutally honest. Chronically negative people may not even be aware of their behavior, so step up and let them know their behavior is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated any longer.
- Remember: Dealing with negative behavior is one of the most difficult and challenging tasks a supervisor must face while managing people. If you decide to turn and look the other way, you and your organization will pay the price.
Negativity impacts fire departments in very noticeable and oftentimes immeasurable ways. To combat negativity, expect excellence and set high standards. Your firefighters will most likely rise to the challenge and may even surprise the organization with what they can accomplish. People who hold on to their negativity will find it hard to survive in such a positive environment.