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The "halo effect" in firefighting

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Linda Willing Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

The "halo effect" in firefighting

Company officers have enormous power when it comes to managing expectations among their crew members

By Linda Willing

You are a company officer who has been given the choice between two firefighters as new members of your crew.

The only thing you know about the two is that Terry recently rescued a child from a second floor bedroom during a big fire, and Lee recently hit a citizen's car when driving the fire truck. Who will you choose to be on your crew?

Realistically, with just this information to go on, no one would choose Lee over Terry. Those officers who say that it made no difference to them which of these firefighters would be assigned to them are probably not being completely honest with themselves either.

It is human nature to believe that success will be predicted by prior success. This is true even if that success is based on nothing more than a single incident or pure chance, which could certainly be the case in this example.

It is possible that Terry's success in finding the fire victim was a result of luck — just randomly being assigned to search the room that had an occupant versus all the other rooms that did not.

In a more extreme case, Terry might have disobeyed orders and been freelancing when making the big save. On the other hand, Lee's accident may have been the result of quick thinking that averted larger damage or bodily harm.

Limited knowledge
In either case, the outcome may have absolutely no predictive effect on the skill or ability of each individual. Having only this limited knowledge of the firefighters should have no effect at all on preferring one over the other as a crew member.

But is this how it plays out in real life? Hardly. When I first became a firefighter, I was given lots of good advice. I clearly remember my captain telling me, "If you want to succeed around here, just make sure you don't do something really stupid your first year on the job."

Those who had an accident, or who spoke too freely, or who violated some unwritten rule were often labeled for a good duration of time, if not their entire careers, according to that single incident.

On the other hand, someone who may have just had a lucky break during that critical early period may be labeled in a positive way that may not accurately reflect that person's ability at that moment in time.

But what happens after those labels are applied? Then the expectations often become self-fulfilling prophecies. The person who is expected to be good is noticed and affirmed every time he or she does something positive, and tends to be excused when the inevitable mistake is made.

Constant scrutiny
On the other hand, the person who is expected to be bad is under constant scrutiny, noticed for all mistakes made, and positive outcomes are considered to be flukes.

It doesn't take long for this cycle to become self-perpetuating. They say that nothing succeeds like success, and there is a lot of truth to this statement, at least as far as people's perceptions are concerned.

This is known as the halo effect, a tendency to like everything about a person, including things you have not directly observed, based on liking one thing about that person.

On the other hand, when expectations are negative about a person, that person may internalize the characterization to the point where they represent themselves in a diminished way, if only just to meet the expectations that exist about them.

I remember early in my career meeting an older firefighter who introduced himself this way: "Hi, I'm Ray. I'm kind of considered dead wood around here." It was partly ironic, but mostly true.

He was considered to be dead wood around the department, based on a couple early incidents in his career, and he subsequently lived up (or down) to that expectation.

Bad beginnings
What I found when I worked with Ray, and others who had a similarly unfortunate beginning on the department, was that he was a good man with lots of knowledge to share.

But there was no expectation among his peers that he had much of anything to contribute and thus had been written off early in his tenure on the job.

Company officers have enormous power when it comes to managing expectations among their crew members. A first important piece of this effort is recognizing the reality of the halo effect, for better and for worse. The halo effect says that success breeds success, and failure tends to predict the same.

Therefore, it is critical that company officers give all new crew members a blank slate, no matter what they have heard about them or what actual incidents have occurred in the past.

This openness must not just exist in the officer's mind. These expectations (especially negative expectations) have been internalized by the crew members themselves. It is important for the company officer to verbalize this clean slate approach for everyone.

You must let everyone know that they are starting on equal footing, and that your expectation is that the team's success always outweighs individual performance.

To some degree it is impossible to ignore the strong influence of prior knowledge of someone, no matter now limited that information may be. The best officers recognize the dangers of the halo effect and work to bring out the best in every crew member, regardless of that person's reputation or prior history.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.



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