Beyond sports: Coaching in the firehouse

Fire/EMS leaders and employees share the responsibility in clearly communicating expectations and performance

Let’s face it, none of us are perfect. At some point in our lives, personally or professionally, we’ve stumbled and made mistakes. Whether accidently, unknowingly, or worse – intentionally – we’ve failed to meet required expectations from our families and bosses.

When we miss the mark, it’s usually incumbent upon a parent, friend, family member or a boss (or in many cases, the designated adult in the firehouse) to bring balance back to the situation and to the individual at fault. More importantly, missteps are a chance to learn from the situation and grow to be a better individual.

The old saying that anyone can hold the helm when the seas are calm has some merit. However, is it more indicative of inadequate communication skills and poor leadership? Understand that there is a distinct difference between coaching and counseling. Coaching is an ongoing process that enables employees to develop whatever skills they need to improve their performance within a constructive environment. Coaching is usually handled by a leader who provides support and advice, and helps an employee to continuously improve in pursuit of his or her development goals.

Coaching isn’t always about sports. In the fire and emergency services, it’s more important.
Coaching isn’t always about sports. In the fire and emergency services, it’s more important. (Photo/Phoenix Central School District)

Although coaching helps a person to learn no matter whether they are a high, low or average performer, it is most appropriate when an employee has excellent skills in some areas but needs support and guidance in other areas. Coaching can begin with the new employee and continue for years as the employee progresses in their tenor.

Counseling employees away from deviant behavior

Counseling has a very different tone and purpose. While similar to coaching in that it’s typically a one-on-one process, counseling comes into play when employees are having issues or challenges that are disruptive and are affecting their work. These issues could be either personal or professional in manner, but they have some direct effect on work productivity. Thus, behaviors and skills must improve for the individual to meet job expectations, or further negative consequences may occur.

Over my years in leadership, or boss positions, I’ve had many personnel performance evaluations come across my desk that painted individuals as role-model employees; although their performance indicated otherwise. Now this does not mean they were necessarily bad individuals, but it indicated missed opportunities of coaching, counseling, accountability and communications. Somewhere in the process, there was a breakdown in the relationship between the boss/supervisor and the employee.

On some occasions, I was the one who missed the opportunity. There were situations where I should have held individuals more accountable for their performance and behavior, but I failed to do so, which only compounded the situation, and I had to own it as the boss.

Likewise, I’ve also been a victim of others missing an improvement opportunity with me. I’ve been the subordinate employee who received praise from one boss, yet was chastised by another, simply because my bosses didn’t communicate with each other. Near the end, I had no clue who I was supposed to communicate with or about, thus ambiguity and frustration arose. Ultimately, it placed me in a situation where leaving the organization was inevitable.

When this dilemma plays out and isn’t addressed in the appropriate time, a troubling scenario can develop. Author Diane Vaughn calls this scenario the normalcy of deviance – the condition in which people become accustomed to deviant behavior to the point that they no longer see it as deviant.

The responsibility for deviance shouldn’t rest only on the employee, but also on the boss/leader who neglects their responsibility to address the situation or behavior. This can also be defined as the evolution of culture in which behavior without intervention becomes accepted as the norms, and thus over time, becomes culture.

In the fire and EMS community, the evolution of culture is even more complex. It is likely that the standards of practice that most closely match how coaching and counseling are prescribed to be conducted will be found closest to headquarters and the chief’s office.

However, one can often find differences in culture and standards of practice from shift to shift and station to station, especially the further away one gets from headquarters. This isn’t reflective of all organizations, but is very much realistic in many.

Avoiding communication breakdowns

There are many reasons why coaching and counseling may be ineffective or even non-existent. Here is a short sampling to consider:

  • Leaders aren’t prepared to deal with uncomfortable scenarios that coaching and counseling can present. Whether they lack the training or experience, problems can and are most likely to occur.
  • Leaders and/or followers don’t understand the difference in coaching and counseling, thus coaching sessions have a negative connotation, prohibiting any positive outcomes.
  • Leaders can be intimidated by followers who have more experience, training or talent.
  • Organizational culture allows for poor performance, nepotism and favorites to prevail, thus making it more difficult for accountability to exist. Or, the organizational culture that is promoted is not reality and can in fact be just the opposite.
  • Poor structure in the line of reporting from leaders and follower(s) creates mistrust, miscommunication and misunderstanding.
  • A lack of effective policies and guidelines to define how coaching and counseling should be implemented and conducted leads to breakdowns in communication.

Certainly, for almost all challenges and barriers, there are solutions and strategies. Those in leadership positions have a responsibility to be proactive in addressing the issues above. Likewise, it is incumbent upon the followers/employees, to request feedback and call attention to inconsistent communications.

It’s an unfortunate scenario when employees are counseled with incomplete, incorrect or inaccurate information, and then forced to defend themselves, which can ultimately lead to a change in employment – it’s often a lose-lose for everyone.

Improve performance with effective communication

While there are many reasons why coaching and counseling may be ineffective or non-existent, there are steps that can be taken to bolster communication. This too is merely a short list:

  • Develop clear standard operating policies and guidelines that differentiate the difference between and need for coaching and counseling.
  • Conduct training on the SOPs/SOGs for all employees with clear expectations of how and when they should occur.
  • Conduct regular coaching sessions to help differentiate the difference between coaching and counseling, while ultimately creating better employees.
  • Create a culture of accountability and consistency, which ultimately reduces the need and expectation for counseling sessions, while making the organization more effective.

Coaching exists in sports to make the players and the teams perform better. When a player fails to perform as expected, which ultimately affects the team, a counseling session will occur, and the player will be benched, suspended or, in some cases, cut from the team. However, it’s not always the player that’s the problem. Ultimately, the coaches take the blame in the minds of the fans, who want a winning team. In fire and emergency services, it is incumbent for company officers to develop a winning team not for fans, but for the public we serve.

What makes our organizations outside of sports any different? Don’t our customers, both internal and external, deserve a winner?

While there are differences in coaching and counseling, they can both complement one another. If regular coaching occurs, it makes a counseling session easier to conduct. However, once counseling occurs, coaching should continue. We want the best players, and the best employees for our teams and organizations.

In reality, coaching isn’t always about sports! In the fire and emergency services, it’s more important.

Be safe!

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