The conflict challenge: Why do so many firefighters struggle with crew conflict?
Firefighters are naturally good problem-solvers but notoriously conflict-averse
Firefighters are not always good at managing conflict among themselves. This is evidenced by the fact that there is a small but steady stream of stories about firefighters handling conflict badly: fistfights among crews at fire scenes, assault at the station, harassment allegations, bad behavior on social media.
Of course, firefighters are not unique in being poorly prepared for effective conflict management. Conflict resolution requires skills that most people don’t naturally have. Being good at solving interpersonal problems requires the commitment to learn and practice skills and behaviors that may not come readily.
Deficits in interpersonal problem-solving may not be as immediately obvious among firefighters. We are usually good at solving problems, especially technical problems, within our service communities and at our stations. We know how to improvise to fix things, and we are persistent in finding a technical solution that can resolve a problem at least in the short term.
When it comes to personal problems among themselves, we may not do as well.
Let it go vs. speak up
I’ve been teaching conflict management skills to firefighters for decades and have made some observations in the process. One is that many firefighters would rather avoid interpersonal conflict instead of deal with it directly. Again, this is not unusual. Most people are conflict-averse and would rather ignore problems or gloss over them with humor or rationalization instead of really dealing with them.
There are good reasons why firefighters would fall into avoidance mode. Firefighting is a team endeavor; it cannot be done alone. To be ostracized from the group or team for any reason is bad, not only resulting in social isolation at work but also potential physical danger.
Many firefighters learn early to adopt a go-along-to-get-along strategy: Don’t make waves. Try not to be the center of attention. If it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else, then maybe it shouldn’t be bothering you either.
But firefighters are a diverse population, with widely varied tastes, life experiences, habits and personal styles. They live in close quarters with one another and deal with both intense stress and boredom. Conflict among individuals is inevitable.
For some problems, an easy-going approach is exactly right. This includes low-level problems that are isolated incidents with no personal malice attached. Everyone can have a bad day or a moment of impatience. We all irritate others without intent. Sometimes it is best to just let it go. Apologize and move on.
But when patterns emerge and behavior becomes persistent and directed, then the problem must be addressed. This is where skills are needed – skills that many firefighters do not have. So instead of talking things out, bringing in a neutral third party to mediate, or coming to a negotiated agreement, firefighters punch each other out or defame the other on social media or attempt to sabotage a coworker.
Consider the recent arrest of a Seattle firefighter who allegedly hacked a coworker’s email account to send threatening messages to a member of city council. The arrested firefighter had a history of conflict with his coworker and was reportedly trying to get him transferred or fired. Clearly a bad conflict resolution strategy and now this man is charged with a crime, his life and career ruined. Yet in 2018, this same person was named Firefighter of the Year.
Two keys: Training and leadership
Changing bad outcomes with interpersonal problem-solving requires two things: training and leadership.
Skills training is necessary in the areas of communication and effective listening, matching effective solutions to problems, and giving people the opportunity to practice and discuss different approaches to challenging situations. Interpersonal conflict raises the emotional level of any interaction. Having real skills and insights at the ready can deescalate situations and allow for more rational outcomes.
Leadership is critical as well. Firefighters need to see their officers and chiefs not only saying the right words but doing the right things when they are faced with challenging conflict situations. Chiefs need help with these skills also and should participate in any training required for operational firefighters as well as seek out support and training for their unique roles.
Perhaps most importantly, department leaders should reward and prioritize conflict management skills along with other technical skills. Skills associated with communication and conflict management are equally important as any technical skill in keeping firefighters safe.
Skills and support needed
Firefighters are problem-solvers by definition and they need skills and support to have the flexibility and will to address every kind of problem they may face, both technical and interpersonal. Training, support, and a consistent and positive example from leadership allow firefighters to be effective in all aspects of the important work they do.