Are They Fixing or Bitching? Are You Leading or Retreating?
Michael West, Fired Up Training Services, LLC
There is little doubt that in one of your firehouses right now, some members are engaged in a “solving the World’s issues” discussion. The nature of firefighters is that we are fixers. Think about it. A woman calls 911. “My house is on fire! My baby’s not breathing!! I smell gas! I’m locked out of my car.” We respond and fix the issue. It’s why many of us became involved in this business. Our desire to help is really our desire to fix. When no one is calling 911 it is in the firefighter’s mindset to continue to fix things.
This has led to fire department issues for as long as we have been a fire service. As leaders, we need to determine if the troops are bitching or they are fixing. There is a difference but too often all are lumped into one big category and it’s generally the former one. When it is all thrown into the same pot, we can end up dismissing important issues that could be solved. Solving issues makes our departments stronger and the leader a better leader. What are the distinctions?
1. Bitching is generic, “this place is the pits, that shift is lazy, the chief doesn’t know anything, I hate this place”, kinds of complaints. Fixing involves specific examples of issues often coupled with possible solutions. Remember fixers may not have the answer that solves the problem but they know a solution exists and they want help to find it.
2. Bitchers bitch, fixers fix. Seems like a no brainer, but if someone has a complaint or observation and continues to step up, starts a group to work on solutions, or continues to do research on the problem then they are fixers.
3. Bitching is often done in private corners between small groups of people. It may be through some anonymous chatroom on the world wide web where people hide behind some false name like MyFDsucks. It is done without thought, true insight, or positive intent. Fixing is direct, here is what I see, here is one or more ways to repair it, here is my signature and yes, I am willing to help.
As leaders, we must recognize the distinction between these two modes. Many managers see conflict or difference of opinion as bad.They may view it as a shot at their ability or consider the fixer as someone with a bad attitude. After all if we are in charge there can’t be anything that needs to be fixed so this member must be bitching. Fixers who are continually labeled in this way often turn their fixing outside the organization and the Department may lose the valuable input that they have to offer. A significant benchmark of poor leadership in the fire department is when the leader is left alone without meaningful conversations from the people they lead. A Chief we know would ask his staff for the downsides of a plan before putting it into action. If he went around the room and received no feedback he would table the issue until next meeting. He knew that there are problems with any plan and would wait until he heard from the opponents before moving ahead. If you ask 10 of your people “what are our problems in this department?” and they all tell you every thing is perfectly fine, you likely have a big problem.
What can leaders do to better to work with fixers? There are several things that can help:
1. Listen carefully. The difference between the two can sometimes be subtle. Not everyone is an eloquent communicator who can explain their ideas for fixing well. Within the issue brought to the floor there is likely legitimate concern or room for our department’s improvement. If the leader dismisses it because the person does not clearly communicate their vision or complaint or possible solutions they might be missing a chance to fix some organizational issue.
2. Stop defending. It is impossible to advance from a defensive posture. The fixer generally doesn’t attack individuals unless it is truly the leader who has caused the problem at hand. Fixers work to move the organization forward. Managers who are insecure about their ability, though, often see questions or concerns as shots at their personal character. The leader must understand that their department can be improved and should see it as their responsibility to be open to criticism and critique of themselves and their area of responsibility. It is likely that you were not a charter member of your fire department. As leaders we are trying to fix what we have inherited. Stop defending and start listening.
3. Join NA (No Anonymous). At NA, like other help groups, people are trying to kick the habit. Many fire service managers immediately react with “No” as the answer to all questions and suggestions. We should all work toward saying yes or at least break the habit gently by starting with “Maybe”.
Firefighters are fixers by nature and want to contribute to the success of their department. It is important that leaders recognize the nature of their followers and work to build trust and communication so that these fixers can help all of us do better. It is best to stay open to the suggestions of the members because as a friend of mine often says none of us are as good as all of us.
Michael West has been a member of the fire service since 1982. He is a 4th generation firefighter who has instructed internationally at fire departments and conferences. Mike is a Captain with South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue. He has a Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication and Leadership from Seton Hall University, a Bachelor’s degree in Management from the University of Colorado, and an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science. Mike has written dozens of articles for fire service publications and websites and has contributed to several books as an author and technical advisor, Mike was awarded the 2006 Colorado Fire Trainer of the Year Award. He is an officer of Fired Up Training Services, LLC a fire training and consulting company and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .