Does Your Department Suffer From Low Morale?

by Dr. Tim McGrath & Dr. Victoria McGrath

As we work with fire departments across the United States, we find a common thread among unhappy employees. "The problem is low morale"! That part is usually true but what is assumed - OK spoken also, is that it must be the Chief's fault.

Now Chief, lets understand the playing field. Those that are complaining will take no personal responsibility; will do nothing to stop the negative talk at the kitchen table; they are definitively not part of the problem; and they really believe it isn't their job to fix it.

Ok, Chief, the ball is in your court - fix it! Well, let's begin:

Step 1:
You might be part of the problem. Therefore, rather than be defensive sit back and say what is behind the current environment in our department. For those of you who are naming an individual - I think you missed the point. What are you doing to find the root of the problem? Problems are like icebergs, the dangerous part is hidden and we focus only on the part that is visible.

Step 2:
Are you rewarding bad behavior? If you know there is a problem and you are doing nothing - the answer is Yes! Always attack problems aggressively and in a timely manner, never attack the person. When we conduct studies in very problematic departments the bottom line is the Board (District or Municipality) expects the "Chief" to resolve it. You see we have come full circle. Therefore, in reality you are responsible for addressing the department's morale.

Step 3:
You can't motivate anyone! I know many of you are disagreeing with that statement. However, the truth is that motivation is intrinsic and is controlled by us, not someone else. Your job is to create the organizational enivornment that will encourage members to motivate themselves. There is a major difference between thinking you can motivate someone and creating the enivornment in which they seek to fulfill some need and therefore, motivate themselves.

Step 4:
Get out of the office and into the station(s). Sit down at the table and see what they want to talk about. Expect dead silences at first and major distrust. You might even get a grievance for trying to talk to your employees. These meetings will be pretty uncomfortable for you also, but with low department moral comes poor communication (another article). God gave you two ears and one month for a reason - listen. It isn't time to attempt to negotiate or have every answer ready for immediate response. A great response is "I'm glad you shared that and I have a better understanding of how you feel; I will need time to think about this." If you say you will get back to them - get back to them! If your officers aren't carrying your message to the troops, hold them responsible.

Step 5:
Start catching people doing things right. You have to be in their enivornment not your office to do this. Always compliment in public and discipline in private (or union procedure). Make the compliment sincere and worthy of a compliment. Most people really do want to do the right thing - yes even in your department. Make your officers carry a notebook in their pocket and record catching employees doing something right. Have them record the time, date, event, individual, and what they did. And make sure you then verbalize the compliment to the individual. It is amazing how quickly this works.

Step 6:
Start with a victory and reward good behavior. Success begets success. Studies have shown the number one thing employees what from their employer is recognition for doing a good job. Remember:

  • Know - get to know your employees
  • Understand - how they feel and think
  • Explain - how they will react under certain situations
  • Predict - their actions under these situations
  • Control - the situation - never attempt to control the individual

Step 7:
Lastly, once you see the department turning in a favorable direction, do not allow a singe individual, or small group to derail your success. Remember, negative will always trumps positive and left alone, your department will revert back to its old ways quickly. In medicine they remove cancer from a patient. In an organization you might have to remove the problem and it can be done whether it is union, or volunteer. It is your job!