What a fire chief must do to change the culture

It's more important to be honest and deal with the reality of the situation than to just say the right words

Years ago I was hired as an adviser to a large metropolitan fire department that was dealing with issues related to organizational and cultural change. During a meeting with chief level officers, I asked the question, "So, what is the status of hazing and pranking on the department these days?"

I knew this department was notorious for such behavior in the past.

One of the chiefs responded immediately. "It's completely unacceptable and it never happens," he said.

"Right," I said. "I understand that is your policy, and that's good. But how's it going? Have there been setbacks? What's the status of making this change a reality at the station level?"

Another chief looked up. "It's completely unacceptable and it never happens," he repeated.

I looked around the room and all the chiefs were nodding in agreement. What could I say? I couldn't argue with them, although I knew from my own research that what they were saying was not accurate.

The company line
Then during the break, I happened to overhear two chiefs talking to one another. The first said, "That's interesting that she asked us about hazing and pranks. We used to do a lot of that, but we don't do that anymore."

The other chief responded, "Yeah, but it's kind of too bad in a way, because I remember how fun it was to …" And off he went down Memory Lane, recounting his own exploits with practical jokes and initiation rites for new firefighters.

I remember in that moment feeling a cold wave come over me. I thought, these chiefs are repeating the company line, but they're not being completely honest with themselves. Something very bad is going to happen related to this issue in this organization.

And sure enough, within just a couple years on that department there was major fallout related to an incident of inappropriate pranks that led to large payouts, ruined careers, and a major distraction that seemed to never end.

Emotional commitment
I remembered that day when I asked the question. It wasn't that the chiefs were actively promoting inappropriate behavior. I think consciously they were on board with the policy and intellectually understood its importance. But emotionally they had not fully bought into it, and this allowed for a kind of ambivalence on their part, and ambivalence in how they promoted and enforced the policy.

How much better it would have been if those chiefs could have expressed that ambivalence in that moment. We could have talked about it, and come up with strategies together for dealing with the contradictions.

How do you enforce a policy as a chief that you once clearly violated as a firefighter? How do you change the culture of a large organization that takes pride in its traditions, even the more dubious ones? How do you bring people at the station level to come to see that there are other ways to create team spirit and camaraderie other than hazing and unprofessional behavior?

These are real questions that need to be answered, and they cannot be answered just with the statement of a policy. Zero tolerance of hazing — that's a good thing, but what does that mean? How is hazing defined in terms of such a policy?

Gaming the system
When policies are overly simplistic, they can lead people to game the system. They look for exceptions, for gradations of behavior that are not explicitly addressed.

The contradictions are important. That's where we live on a daily basis. It's more important to be honest and deal with the reality of the situation than to just say the right words.

This is what firefighters do best when they are on emergency calls. Good firefighters don't expect textbook cases.

Trying to apply simplistic rules to dynamic events often leads to very bad outcomes. The best firefighters look out for the unexpected and have the ability to make decisions based on the specific situation rather than an exhaustive book of rules.

Just like the fireground
The same is true for changing organizational culture. Such change can only truly happen when everyone understands not only what they should (and shouldn't) do, but why they should do it.

Everyone on the department must be empowered to make decisions, not just follow rules.

Will there be backsliding during the process of changing organizational culture? Absolutely. But when people are being honest, such setbacks can be quickly recognized, discussed, and dealt with, rather than deliberately overlooked for the sake of consistency.

Good policies are critical. But even more important is nuanced, honest, informed leadership, at all levels of the organization.

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