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Trust in the fire service: Earned or assumed?

Trust should never be taken for granted, but it also has to be given to be earned


In a recent column about building character in young firefighters, I wrote that trust should be given to all members of the organization; that trust should be assumed unless violated. Trust should not have to be earned through popularity or individual achievement.

At least one reader took issue with this statement. He wrote, “It has been my experience that true trust is earned and not automatically achieved because you’re a member of an organization. Trust is earned through direct actions. Trust can only be assumed through a history of actions, by doing, not a title or position.”

I agree with this reader that trust is sacred and should never be taken for granted. This is especially true in work where others’ lives are literally in your hands. But, I disagree about the cause and effect when it comes to building trust.

The thing is, trust has to be given to be earned. (Photo/Illinois State Treasurer)
The thing is, trust has to be given to be earned. (Photo/Illinois State Treasurer)

The thing is, trust has to be given to be earned. You have to let your teenage son drive off alone in the car for the first time, and trust that he will do everything right to return home safely. You have to leave your college-aged daughter home alone for the weekend, having faith that she won’t have the party of the decade in your absence.

Trust involves risk. You have to let go before you are 100 percent certain of the outcome. Every new firefighter has to be allowed to step up and do the job, and those around those young firefighters must support them with belief in their abilities rather than cripple them with doubt or micromanagement.

Provide oversight and mentorship

Of course, this is not an overnight process. You don’t let a teenager drive alone the first day out. You teach them, provide oversight and mentorship, allow for learning from mistakes and build their confidence. Then when they are ready, you let them go, letting trust rise above fear.

This is the same process that must take place for young firefighters. Once they have graduated from recruit school, they have already passed a huge milestone. They are ready to be firefighters on the line, and begin the next phase of their education. It is the job of more senior firefighters and officers to trust those new firefighters and support them with training and mentorship as they show themselves deserving of that trust.

There are several problems with the idea that trust is linked to achievement. First among them is the fact that new firefighters will not all have the same opportunities to achieve. One firefighter might do a great job on a large working fire in the first week on the line, and thus achieve a high level of trust on the job as a result. But what about the firefighter who has been assigned to a slow station by the luck of the draw? Is that firefighter inherently less trustworthy, just because of lack of opportunity to demonstrate grit and ability under pressure?

Trust through achievement

Another problem with requiring new firefighters to earn trust through achievement is that some firefighters will naturally be seen as more competent and trustworthy from the start, and thus will be given more opportunities to reinforce this preconception. Maybe the new firefighter has family ties to the department or friends among the ranks. Maybe the firefighter has a background or interests that strongly align with the crew. All of these things make it more likely that a new firefighter will be accepted and trusted more readily.

But what about the new firefighter who is different in some way? We all tend to like and trust those who are more like ourselves versus those who are significantly different. This is just human nature. But is it fair or even accurate?

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that people are highly motivated to meet expectations that are put on them, regardless of whether those expectations are positive or negative. So if you treat new firefighters with inherent trust and faith in their abilities, they will most often meet that expectation. But, if you treat people as if they are incompetent, suspicious or untrustworthy, then that is likely what you will get back in behavior.

By assuming trust, you set a high and equitable standard for everyone. Most people will do everything in their power to deserve this sacred trust.

But, sometimes people will disappoint you. They will make mistakes and bad decisions, and must be held accountable for those lapses in judgment.

This latter situation will be the exception rather than the rule. Most people are well deserving of trust most of the time. This is especially true in the context of the fire service, where new firefighters have already proven themselves in the structured environment of recruit academy. Given that reality, isn’t it better to assume the best of people and support them to meet those high expectations, rather than treating everyone with doubt until they can somehow prove their worth?

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