The power of expectations for company officers

When expectations are clear, consistent, and honorable, people will do anything within their power to meet them

Years ago, I worked for awhile as an Outward Bound instructor. In this role, I led groups into the wilderness for weeks at a time. The participants carried very heavy packs, slept under tarps, cooked their own food over small camp stoves, hiked all day in bad weather, and went without showers or other bathroom facilities for the duration.

They also paid a lot of money for the opportunity to do this, and at the end, almost universally said it was one of the best experiences of their lives.

I stayed in touch with some of my students in the program, and a year later, one of them told me about a recent trip to Mexico that had really disappointed him.

He had stayed in a beach hotel in Cancun and one day the electricity was off, and there was no hot water. He had also found the hotel rooms to be shabby and felt the whole trip was a major ripoff.

When he told me this, I had to laugh. This guy had loved Outward Bound, which by any standard was a much less comfortable experience than his Cancun hotel. Outward Bound had cost more than his Mexican vacation as well. Yet he loved one and hated the other. He replied, "You don't understand. When you do Outward Bound, you expect to be uncomfortable."

The source of unhappiness
Someone once said that unmet expectations are the source of all unhappiness. My friend's experiences were a clear illustration of that principle.

While doing Outward Bound, he expected to be challenged by the experience and uncomfortable at times, and when this is what occurred, he was happy. When staying at a luxury beach hotel, he expected to have good service and consistent amenities, and when this was not always the case, he was dissatisfied.

Expectations are a powerful thing. Research shows that people are more motivated to meet expectations than do just about anything else, even to excel. So if the expectation is to excel, they will try to do that. But if the expectation is for mediocre performance or blind obedience, that is what they will strive for.

The implications for the company officer are clear. No one establishes expectations more clearly than the lieutenant or captain in any given station. When new firefighters come into the station, they look primarily to the officer to learn what is okay and not okay, what behaviors seem to be rewarded and which ones bring ridicule, what to always do at a fire and what to never do.

These expectations become the framework by which those firefighters measure their own success.

Expectations are conveyed in many ways. Most departments have SOPs or SOGs to guide behavior and decision-making. Most officers also give some explicit direction to newer firefighters about what they want them to do on different types of emergency calls. Performance evaluations provide a formal venue for giving feedback.

But what about the less formal ways that expectations are expressed? Actions really do speak louder than words. Officers who say one thing ("Racial harassment will not be tolerated") but then are the first to tell racial jokes, or those who spend hours on personal business during the workday are sending a clear message to the firefighters on their crews about what kinds of behavior are okay.

It is not surprising that firefighters who are eager to meet expectations might attempt to do so by imitating these behaviors.

One of the problems for officers comes when they try to differentiate between their role as an authority figure and their role as just another person in the station.

When officers tell an inappropriate joke, they might feel that it is on their own time, and not as an officer, and so no larger expectation should be formed as a result.  But the fact is, what a fire officer does at work, during every minute of every 14 or 24 or 48 hours shift, is always as an officer first when seen through the eyes of those on the crew.

Does this put a burden on the company officer? Most definitely. It is the burden of leadership, for which the rewards may be great.

Every firefighter remembers an officer early in his or her career who defined what it meant to be a successful firefighter and a real member of the crew and the department.

What good officers do
Good officers understand that everything they do — their words, their actions, their choice to either speak up or stay silent — have the effect of conveying clear expectations to the firefighters who work for them.

Managing expectations is not easy. Officers need to set goals at a high yet attainable standard, and need to equip their crews with the skills and tools to meet those goals.

Officers must make sure that the way they communicate is effective for the diverse people who work with them. They need to be conscious about giving positive reinforcement and not just corrective criticism.

They must bring their authentic selves to their positions, while never forgetting that others are constantly looking to them to understand what it means to succeed.

When expectations are clear, consistent, and honorable, people will do anything within their power to meet them. But if expectations are expedient, unfair, inconsistent, or disrespectful, that is what you are likely to get in return.

Never underestimate the power you have when it comes to expectations.

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