How fire officers can manage underperforming employees – Part I

Unaware, unwilling or unable? First, identify the problem


Don't miss the webinar "Unaware, unwilling or unable? Identify and manage 3 types of underperforming employees," presented by Chief Sobieski on April 21, 2021, 1 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. CT / 11 a.m. MT / 10 a.m. PT. Register today!

If you are in a fire service leadership position, you have probably spent some time reading books, attending classes or watching videos on leadership and management. Most of it focuses on motivating, inspiring and developing your people – and a lot of this information is extremely instructive.

The problem: Much of this content is geared toward leaders who are trying to inspire others and be aspirational themselves – members who want to be lead, and are eager to learn and excel. There is a considerable dearth of information on what to do with your underperforming employees who show minimal motivation. Many officers and chiefs struggle with knowing how to deal with these employees and, many times, wrestle with identifying the root cause of the problem.

A deputy chief friend of mine condensed the reasons crewmembers underperform into three categories – the 3 U’s: Unaware, unable and unwilling. More specifically, crewmembers are unaware of their performance issues, unable to perform at the expected level and/or simply unwilling to face the problem.

Every department has its Type A, overachieving employees. These are not hard to lead; in fact, in many instances, you have to “reign them in.” You can leverage them to help inspire and support you underperforming employees. They are a valuable asset in doing this if they are properly directed.
Every department has its Type A, overachieving employees. These are not hard to lead; in fact, in many instances, you have to “reign them in.” You can leverage them to help inspire and support you underperforming employees. They are a valuable asset in doing this if they are properly directed. (Photo/Kyle Williams)

Once you have identified which of these issues is the main contributor to the performance problems, then you are on the road to addressing the issue and hopefully salvaging a career.

CHOOSING REDEMPTION OVER DISCIPLINE

A cynical leader might identify these employees as the “2-percenters” – the 2% of your workforce that occupies 90% of your time. If allowed, this paradigm can cause leaders to become jaded and can negatively impact their view of their workforce. This is especially true the further removed they become from the delivery of field services. Every interaction with their people can become just another “problem” to contend with. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Dealing with underperforming employees will undoubtedly take a significant amount of time. Corrective action takes time and patience. But I promise you, the story of redemption is much more powerful than is a tale of discipline. If you can rehabilitate someone’s career, you will have not only impacted the organization in many quantifiable performance metrics, but the intangible benefits will ripple through your organization and you as well.

While there is a simplicity in applying the progressive steps of discipline, the outcome is often the same – the loss of an employee and the creation of ill will. That is not to say there is no place for discipline. But disciplinary action alone is not an effective tool for long-term performance improvement. Discipline is a tool of last resort for underperforming employees.

There are times and conditions in which discipline or separation of employment is necessary as an initial step. Most often, these are applied in situations where the scope of the policy violation is so grave that the situation demands immediate and resolute action.

That is a different situation than the employee who is just not performing the job well and is struggling. These are the ones for which the “Three Us” were created. These are your road map to salvation or separation. But it takes work.

Identifying that someone is not performing well is important, but it’s the “why” that is essential to figure out if you want to turn it around. As a leader, there is nothing more rewarding than helping someone find their way back to the right path.
Identifying that someone is not performing well is important, but it’s the “why” that is essential to figure out if you want to turn it around. As a leader, there is nothing more rewarding than helping someone find their way back to the right path. (Photo/Chris Sobieski)

putting the U’s into practice

I once had an employee who was struggling in our crew. Not only did he have performance issues, but he also had credibility issues with the other crewmembers. When I first arrived, I had a cursory knowledge of his performance and reputation, and it wasn’t good. My first thought: I need to get rid of this guy.

Coincidentally, at the time, I was struggling with my leadership as well. Realizing that, I was reevaluating what my role should be and what kind of leader I wanted to be. It was a strange confluence of personal self-discovery and my first real investment in one of my people, and it ultimately resulted in one of the most rewarding leadership experiments in my career.

I started with the first “U” – unaware. The root of the problem is that he might just not have been presented with the proper knowledge to be successful. I decided to sit back and see how this young firefighter operated, considering several questions:

  • How did he do his job?
  • Did he know what to do?
  • When put into a drill situation, did he know how to perform the functions of his job. Or in other words, was he aware (knowledgeable) about what to do?
  • Did he have the requisite knowledge of how to do the job or had he been properly instructed in how to do it?

We talked a lot, and I began to see that he was quite bright. He also had the physicality needed to do the job. However, he lacked the requisite knowledge in how to do some things, and no one wanted to help him due to his lack of credibility with the crew. He had a propensity to embellish stories or fabricate situations, I believe, as a means of deflecting from his lack of confidence. He was both technically unaware of his needed skills and how his crew perceived him.

If you employee falls into the “unaware” category, education may be the answer. Once presented with information, they are no longer “unaware.” Then you can examine if they are “unable.” Can they retain the information? Can they perform the required skill? 
If you employee falls into the “unaware” category, education may be the answer. Once presented with information, they are no longer “unaware.” Then you can examine if they are “unable.” Can they retain the information? Can they perform the required skill?  (Photo/Cobb Fire)

I then had to consider the other two U’s. Was the member unable to gain the necessary knowledge and skills, and/or was he unable to adjust his behavior that would inspire the confidence of others. The ability to correct both conditions was his only path out. One or the other independently would not do. He and I had a difficult but necessary conversation to explore the options.

What he didn’t know was that I was estimating his ability to change or if he suffered from a terminal condition of unwillingness – the last and usually career-fatal U. In our discussion, I was as compassionate but frank as I could be. We talked about the performance issues that I thought were precluding him from doing the job well. I tried to bring up objective and specific examples. I tried to not be confrontational, but more objectively dissect where I felt he was not meeting the performance standards.

The discussion then turned to the more sensitive topic of his credibility. I told him that in my observations and conversations with him, I found him to be a very credible and bright individual. The problem was that others did not. Citing his examples of where he embellished stories or fabricated details, I tried to illustrate why his peers had little confidence in him. We discussed how doing those things undercut their confidence in him.

To his credit, he conceded that he was deficient in his knowledge base on firefighting and that he could see how his behavior contributed to others’ perception of him. He committed to becoming a student of the job and to modify his behavior.

It was not an easy road. The crew was reluctant to “let him up off the mat.” They still chided him. But through his own willingness to improve, he persevered. I intervened and used my influence with the crew, both as the formal leader and in informal ways, to give him cover. Once the crew saw his commitment and the changes in his behavior, they started to realize the performance improvements, too.

He eventually became a valued and respected member of the crew. He redeemed himself because he was willing. He originally suffered from a lack of awareness, but once presented with the facts of the situation became willing to improve. This is the best outcome.

Is your firefighter “unable”? Put them into situations in which they must perform. Can they do it? If they are unable to do it, you have to examine the root cause of their inability. Once uncovered, you should make every effort to see if they can overcome their lack of ability.
Is your firefighter “unable”? Put them into situations in which they must perform. Can they do it? If they are unable to do it, you have to examine the root cause of their inability. Once uncovered, you should make every effort to see if they can overcome their lack of ability. (Photo/Cobb Fire)

Addressing the Unaware

Many performance issues can be resolved by just providing the right information to the struggling employee. Once the individual realizes that they have a deficiency in performance, they have a focused effort to get the spotlight off of themselves.

There are several possible reasons that can account for their lack of knowledge. They may never have received the proper information or training. At one point, they may have had the requisite performance but have not maintained their knowledge/skill base. Further, ego and pride have may precluded them from reaching out to get help. Whatever the cause, the antidote is training and information.

The PIP should address exactly what training is needed, where they will receive it and how they will be evaluated on it. It should be clear what the minimum performance standard is for them to achieve success.

A great resource to engage in this process is your training division. They may have set lesson plans, check sheets or other materials to take and use. Obviously, this should be done in a manner that protects the employee’s privacy and preserves their dignity. A little demonstrated sensitivity to these concerns reinforces to the firefighter that you are trying to help and not be strictly punitive.

If you maintain a dignified and professional process, you not only increase the employee’s buy-in, but also protect yourself if the outcome is not a successful completion of the plan.

Once they have been presented with the information and have demonstrated proficiency to standard, you may never have to address this again. The “shot across the bow” of being the subject of intense scrutiny may be enough to keep them on the right path in the future.

HOW TO APPROACH THE ‘UNABLE’

Unfortunately, not all cases end up with a storybook ending. There are some individuals who will demonstrate an inability to improve, meaning that they are incapable. This takes several different forms. They can be physically or mentally unable to perform the requisite work. Physical strength might be their deficit, or there may be a physical disability due to injury or even the potential for injury (for example, cardiac issues).

Mental inability can also be the root cause. Their inability might stem from cumulative issues (PTSD, claustrophobia, etc.) that create a situation in which they can no longer do the job. Sometimes, the employee just lacks the ability to learn and retain the information needed to perform acceptably. These are your most heart-wrenching issues with which to deal. Many times, this is through no fault of their own. They either didn’t or no longer possess the capacity to perform the requisite functions of the job.

The “unable” employee still needs the support and opportunity to correct performance. A performance improvement plan or PIP (we will discuss this in Part 2) must be developed and followed. The PIP must identify the deficiencies in objective and specific terms. You must document the times at which they have failed to perform acceptably. The emphasis must be on the behaviors that support your conclusions.

An employee’s behaviors that result from inability may come in many forms depending on the cause. For example, if they have an SCBA mask anxiety, how does it manifest itself? It is not always just tearing off the mask at inappropriate times. The firefighter may become unusually hostile or agitated under performance conditions. Manifestations can be more subtle like frequently putting themselves in a position on the fireground where they don’t have to enter. They may have unusual sick leave patterns that correspond to SCBA training days.

You need to be able to identify behaviors that support your assertions. Once identified, you need to be able to describe what has been done to try to bring the firefighter into acceptable performance to date. The PIP, in most instances, should not be your first “bite at the improvement apple.”

The employee should have had their issues discussed thoroughly and been provided training or corrections to see if they can be resolved. The PIP comes in when you have worked through those steps and have not gotten satisfactory improvement.

The development of the PIP is not done in a vacuum. Once you’ve reached this step, you need to bring in other folks to help you, specifically, your chain of command, human resources and possibly even the legal department.

HANDLING THE ‘UNWILLING’

Once you have decided to implement a PIP, you are probably on the cusp of discovering if your employee is in the terminal “U” category. Are they unwilling? Even individuals who suffer deficits of knowledge or capability can often overcome them with the willingness to put in the necessary work. The unwilling are some of the most frustrating and challenging.

In many instances, they know their limitations, but are unwilling to do anything about it. To compound things, these employees’ only willingness may be to fight you all the way to keep their jobs. Rather than applying the requisite effort to raise their performance, they put all their efforts into exploiting every loophole, historical precedent and policy void to circumvent disciplinary action.

That is why the PIP is so important. It is your best means to affording those willing and capable to demonstrate their compliance to standards. At the same time, the plan is your best defense in demonstrating your unbiased and fair approach to an objectively identified issue. A good plan is constructed and implemented in a way that puts success within the employee’s hands. Expectations are well defined, and the pathway to get to the final objective is clear and unambiguous.

ACHIEVING REAL LEADERSHIP

As stated earlier, helping an employee redeem their performance and confidence in themselves is the preferred outcome. If you don’t have that in your mind and heart as a leader, you are likely to inject personal criticisms and bias into your documentation and plan. Remember, both legally and ethically, you must demonstrate fairness in the construction of your plan.

Leadership is easy if you are always given Type A, motivated and exemplary employees. But that really is not leadership; that’s riding the wave. Leadership is developing and getting the most out of a diverse group of individuals who perform at different levels. You will always have those members who exceed performance standards, most will meet your organizational expectations, and a handful will present significant leadership opportunities.

That is where the “rubber meets the road” of leadership. Getting 100% out of every employee knowing all the while that they have varying abilities and aptitudes is the goal. Help people along, hold them accountable, laud them for the things they have done well, dust them off when they have tried but fallen and put them back on the right path. Be the solution to the “Three U’s.” When you do that, you are a truly leading!

[Read Part 2: Dealing with underperforming firefighters: The PIP.]

Editor’s note: Do you have any advice to share about discipline in the fire service. Connect with the editors at editor@firerescue1.com.

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