Leading generation 'why'

The newest generation of firefighters asks a lot of questions about orders, but this behavior can actually be useful for a leader

By Linda Willing

"These new kids, they're smart all right," the senior firefighter said. "But you know what drives me crazy about them? They're always asking questions, always asking, 'Why?' It would be so much better if they could just do what they're told without all the back talk."

This sentiment is a common one among older firefighters when assessing strengths and weaknesses of the new generation in the fire service. At a recent conference workshop on generational differences, I asked participants to write down both positive and negative characteristics of older and younger firefighters. One of the most frequent negative comments made about younger firefighters was "questions directions and orders."

There is no question that the newest generation at work, the so-called "Millennials," expect and offer more feedback than any previous generation (see last month's column "Managing the Feedback Generation"). Some of this feedback comes in the form of the question "Why?" This question can cause considerable friction with older firefighters who were raised with the idea that doing your job and keeping your mouth shut were the keys to success in the fire service. A newer firefighter asking why may seem inappropriate, disrespectful, even insubordinate.

There is no denying that asking why can sometimes be a stalling or diversion tactic, as any parent of a three-year-old knows from experience. But the request for more information may have other sources too — the desire to learn, curiosity, confusion, or the need to provide some key piece of information. Treating all questions as a nuisance is not in the best interests of you, your crew, or the citizens you serve.

On the other hand, constant questioning from firefighters and interruption of activities to attend to their needs are not good for the mission either. Asking why is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be managed.

First, though, it is critical to recognize that younger firefighters by their nature will tend to ask more questions and assume their right to have more input in day-to-day operations. This is the world they live in, and trying to hoard information to protect your leadership role will just make you look irrelevant. If you don't answer the question, they'll go somewhere else — another firefighter or online sources, for example. One thing that is true about the newest generation is that "I don't know" or "None of your business" are not acceptable answers. Information is out there and younger people expect to have access to it.

This is not to say that as an officer you are obligated to respond to every question whenever it may be asked. There is a time and a place for everything, and starting a debate about orders given at an emergency scene is clearly inappropriate. On the other hand, you don't want to create a culture among your crew that restricts any kind of input from even the newest firefighter. That person may be the one who sees what no one else sees, and you want to make sure that a trusting relationship of give and take exists so you will have access to every piece of information you may possibly need.

As a company officer, there are several things you can do to better manage "Generation Why." Start by establishing clear expectations for how questions and feedback will be managed. Let your crew know that if they have questions about policies or procedures, you want them to come to you and talk about it one-on-one, not raise those issues randomly within a group or in public.

Make sure you follow up on concerns in a timely way. If you don't know the answer to a question, don't fake it or downplay the importance of the inquiry. Find out the answer and get back to the person as soon as possible.

Consider using "pre-briefs" as a way of defusing confusion or challenges. Most departments use debriefs to help individuals understand what occurred during significant incidents or events, and improve performance in the future. A pre-brief anticipates questions related to routine activity and explains why specific actions are taken in advance. For example, before doing a school program, get the crew together to talk about not only what will happen during the event, but why you do things a particular way. This technique will go a long way toward minimizing questions as well as creating buy-in among crew members.

Finally, try to determine the motivation behind persistent questioning. Is the person confused or is he stalling to avoid something? Does she really want to learn or is she challenging your authority? How can you know what is true in any individual case? You can use observation, knowledge of personal history, intuition, and finally, you can ask. Simply responding with, "What is your motivation in wanting to have that information right now?" holds the questioner accountable and diminishes trivial or habitual questions that may be a detriment to getting the job done.

As an officer you should want your crew to be involved, to use appropriate inquiry, and to provide you with as much information as possible to make informed decisions. Respectfully managing the question "Why?" is an important leadership skill toward accomplishing these goals.

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