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How to change fire service culture

Three pillars to help leaders embrace and manage organizational change


Managing and leading cultural changes in the modern fire service is not only necessary but also the responsibility of progressive and professional fire service leaders.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Changing fire service culture is critical to fostering an adaptive and flexible workplace and workforce.

Organizations that are highly adaptable can maneuver – and thrive – to meet the ever-changing demands of a dynamic world.

However, changing an organization’s culture – as in, “this is how things are done around here” – may well be the most difficult activities for a leader. This is certainly true for the fire service.

In brief, culture is a set of assumptions or bumpers guiding the how and why we are expected to behave, as related to both the external community and internal organizational constructs. Successful cultural changes within an organization are driven through empowerment, not top-down mandates.

It is important to note that no amount of perfected cultural alignment can correct for a bad foundation, decision or system.

The iceberg of culture

Organizational culture is the driver of outcomes. For visual reference, let’s use the commonly referenced iceberg analogy, driven by the work of Dr. Edgar Schein. The portion of the iceberg sitting above the water line accounts for the visible manifestations of our fire service culture. This includes our uniforms, the apparatus and our outward expressions of who we are. These are easy to see and often on display.

Working below the waterline is where the body of organizational culture lies. Often unstated, implied, and codified processes and constructs are built over generations.

Below and deep beyond the water line is where we find the heart of an organization. This is where who we say we are is either supported or refuted by deeply held organizational cultural beliefs. This is who we really are, at our core.

Correctly and thoroughly understanding our organizational culture is critical to not only the diagnosis but also the prognosis for change. It is essential that espoused beliefs correspond to organizational norms. Misinterpretation or misalignment can impede attempts to generate cultural change initiatives.

3 pillars of change

Now that we have discussed the foundation of organizational fire service culture, let’s discuss how we can effectively manage changing the culture.

Cultural change as a practice of organizational transformation is inevitable, if not necessary. Embracing and managing change is the hallmark of exceptional leadership. But how do we initiate cultural change in fire service organizations?

To be successful, a compelling vision of the desired new state needs to be articulated early. This vision must be consistent with stated and implied values and correspond with organizational mission.

The drivers of exceptional organizational culture coalesce around three pillars: behaviorism, constructivism and methodologies (BCM). Healthy organizational cultures bring these three intrinsically linked pillars into alignment with the organization’s values to transform and manage cultural change initiatives.

1. Behaviorism: Conditioning leads to change

It is often said in management that if you want to change the culture, you change the behaviors. Simple, right?

The theory of behaviorism centers on a form of learning based on the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. This is a belief that our responses to environmental stimuli shape our actions. Using behaviorism as an analysis tool requires evaluation of organizational behaviors that are openly or tacitly given approval. Clarification of what behaviors are rewarded or rebuffed are indicators as to what is important and valued.

So, how are organizations expressing approval of demonstrated desired behaviors? How are adverse behaviors addressed?

This interactive process defines the attributes of behaviorism. Behaviors require attentive practice and proactive participation; after all, behaviors are perishable without conditioning.

When we have applied behaviorism as a principle, we can invest our time practicing desired behaviors versus trying to identify them. Alignment with fire service organizational values then becomes easier to identify and measure.

2. Constructivism: Seeing how change will be positive

Constructivism encourages people to construct their own understanding and knowledge of their organization through experiences and reflection on outcomes. Cultural change through constructivism is generated by people learning from this reflection.

Constructivism is a paradigm for teaching and learning, and leverages experiential learning against demonstrated realities. In many cases, constructivism, as it relates to changes in culture, follows the “see one, do one, teach one” approach as a method of learning behaviors.

Constructivism is where organizations can demonstrate a clear path to the future. The plan needs to include what’s changing, when, how and, most importantly, why. Being able to clearly diagram this process allows individuals to synthesize how changes will positively affect the organization. This will construct mental mapping that offers a compelling and inspiring vision moving forward.

Leadership’s ability to successfully author change initiatives toward their desired state begins with constructing a compelling vision for the future.

3. Methodologies: Driving the “what” and “how” of change

A system of clear methods drives successful change management.

The affiliation and implementation of cultural change road maps should be supported by change management methodologies. There are more than a few to choose from. In fact, one could spend an entire lifetime researching and evaluating the programmatic attributes of change management methodologies.

The point here is this: Methodologies are the what and how things are done within our organization. Methodologies include everything from emergency response to station life to the more mundane activities like meetings and committee work.

What are the drivers of decisions and outcomes? Is your organization fostering a collaborative decision-making process with participation expected? How things are accomplished reveals a tremendous amount about organizational culture.

Additionally, methodologies need to grow and adapt as the organization changes.

Organizational leadership’s role in cultural change

If organizational leadership creates the environment, the culture is its manifestation.

Many of the obstacles associated with change management can be alleviated, or at least mitigated, by transparency, trust and integrity. Members of the organization are often fast studies and critical of organizational strife. Lacking trust, transparency or integrity will deal a death blow to change initiatives. “Because I said so” doesn’t resonate with professionals or healthy organizational cultures.

How then do we repair or renovate fire service culture? We begin with a careful analysis of BCM.

Changing culture is a reflection of organizational values. Managing and leading cultural change requires leadership to address and mitigate anxiety as well as ensure that the organizational culture is capable of tolerating change.

Early engagement with our people produces far-reaching dividends that are much more effective than telling or trying to sell it to them. Managing change requires fire service leadership to articulate what will remain the same, insofar as it provides a description of what will change. A common aphorism associated with change management jests, “If you want to understand an organization, try to change it.” This corresponds to the internal and external leadership dialogue that must take place.

Cultural change in the modern fire service must be done with intentionality, understanding that change will cause disequilibrium. Disequilibrium allows organizations to seek out equilibrium. It is during this period when realignment with new cultural changes can take place.

Assistance and resistance

As with any change, changing fire service culture will be met with assistance and resistance. Understanding the motives of both is critical.

While some will embrace the change, you must plan for and embrace resistance. This is normal and, to an extent, healthy, albeit a difficult consequence of change management.

Resistance comes from a sense or feeling of loss – a loss of familiarity, comfort zones and norms. The feeling that one has no choice, or no ability to participate in the process, lies at the root of most resistance to change. However, this can be reduced if there is the opportunity to participate in the process. Not all resistance is bad; it’s natural. What’s worse is apathy. Moderating the environment is a leadership imperative for successful implementation and long-term success.

Organizational membership’s responsibility in cultural change

Cultural change management is enabled and facilitated by employee engagement and participation. Successful initiatives are often the result of organizations whose members have a high tolerance for change – not for change’s sake, but the shared belief in the benefit of the change.

The ability to meet and manage cultural change initiatives is facilitated by mobilizing the organizational body to participate in the process.

BCM cannot work without strong organizational values and internal alignment with the mission. These then become preamble.

Cultural change initiatives will fall flat or miss the mark when gaps between current reality and desired state do not correspond with the current mission and values.

Cultural change for the fire service is not instigated by a figurehead or single-point leadership model, nor is it engaged and motivated employees. Creating a values-driven, mission-focused culture in the fire service isn’t the byproduct of a quippy values statement, nor is it found in inspired servant leadership. Healthy fire service culture is the byproduct of these aforementioned items, not the driver of one.

Change is hard, yes. But change is inevitable. Managing and leading cultural changes in the modern fire service is not only necessary but also the responsibility of progressive and professional fire service leaders. We are the custodians of the profession and our communities. Changing our culture to meet the demands and external environment is intrinsically linked to preserving our relevance as a profession in the 21st century and beyond.

Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian (Idaho) Fire Department. He previously served as a battalion chief with the Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department. With over two decades of fire service experience, Blume is an author, lecturer and independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. Blume is an alumnus of the University of Arizona and holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees.