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Understanding What Motivates Our Firefighters

Firefighters are alike; firefighters are different. And understanding our firefighters — their similarities and differences — will enable us as company officers to better motivate them to be more productive.

Understanding motivation can help us understand why our firefighters do what they do. It can help us predict the effects of our leadership actions and it can help us direct behavior so that our crew and each of our firefighters feel success.

According to motivational experts Nadler and Lawler, there are three questions about our employees’ behavior that answers “what motivates them.”

  • What makes some people work hard while others do as little as possible?
  • How can we influence the performance of our people?
  • Why do some people show up late to work, or even miss work entirely?

There are many existing theories, models and approaches that claim to answer “what motivates us?” A few include Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” which encourages us to realize our individual potential, or Frederick Herzberg’s job enrichment theory that addresses satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work. In addition, there’s Elton Mayo’s approach to participative management that proposes that workers are motivated when they believe that their organization cares about them.

Nadler and Lawler believe that all of these approaches assume that everyone is alike, that all situations are alike, and that there’s only one best way.

This is where the problem begins. If firefighters are alike, and firefighters are different, then obviously “one best way” will not always work.

Recent studies on motivation (Nadler & Lawler 2004; Northouse 2007) suggest that people make decisions about their own behavior in a group setting based on three concepts:

  • Every behavior leads to a certain outcome — reward or punishment — or “What happens if I do more, or less, than I’m expected to?”
  • The value of the outcome (worth, attractiveness), or “What’s in it for me?”
  • The probability of success, or “How much can I really do?”

Based on these ideas, we can assume that our firefighters will decide how to behave based on their perceptions or expectancies of the degree to which their behavior will lead to desired outcomes.

They will choose that level of performance which has the greatest motivational force or reward. Researchers call this the “Expectancy Theory.”

Implications for company officers
Because our firefighters’ behavior is a result of both them and their environment, we must look at and consider both them and their environment. We have to figure out what outcomes — value — are important to our firefighters, or what turns them on.

This information can be identified through observation or by simply just asking them. Skillful company officers recognize the needs of their firefighters, but don’t try to change them.

It is essential that we clearly communicate our expectations, or the kinds of behavior that we desire of our firefighters. We must define the performance we expect in fairly specific terms that are observable and measurable, while making sure that they are reachable.

Also, remember that different firefighters have different needs and expectations. Firefighters who perform poorly should not be rewarded the same as those who perform at higher levels.

Not all firefighters are the same. Effective motivation comes from recognizing that all firefighters are not alike and that we must be flexible in order to accommodate their differences. To influence our firefighters’ work behavior and performance, we must understand motivation and the dynamics that influence their motivation to come to work and to work hard. The company officer is the direct link to creating the environment that will motivate their firefighters.

Nadler, D.A. & Lawler III, E.E (1977). Motivation: A diagnostic approach. In Staw, B.M. (Ed.), Psychological Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. (3rd ed.), (pp. 25-36). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Northouse, P.G., (2007). Path-Goal Theory. Leadership: Theory and Practice. (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, California; Sage Publications.

Smoke, C.H., (2005), Company Officer (2nd ed.). Clifton Park, New York: Thompson-Delmar Learning.

Fire department company officers can influence every part of fire station life, from culture and motivation to LODD reduction. Learn to lead effectively with Billy Schmidt’s FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘The Company Officer.’