Fire service organizational silos: How to emerge from the depths and foster connection
Predicting, spotting and dismantling silos, plus preventing reemergence through a teamwork-focused mindset
The organizational structure and rigors of the fire service make it susceptible to a critical stumbling block that is common within other industries. That stumbling block is organizational silos, or siloing.
Silos are organizational barriers that foster division, hamper functioning and limit overall ability. Organizational silos can limit creativity and kill organizational and individual morale. As much as siloing is a sign of overall organizational dysfunction, it is also an opportunity for organizational growth and transition.
Silos are not always easy to spot; nonetheless, they can be discovered after peeling off the thin veneer of bravado and denial. Identifying the siloed organization is the first step. This requires candid, introspective conversions, and evaluations. An outside audit or assessment can reveal what those too close to the issue cannot see.
Most organizations do not set out to be siloed. And many in the executive ranks may tout the absence of silos in their organization. The truth, however, rests in demonstrable fact, not hot air and hyperbole.
In broad and general terms, siloed organizations are characterized by a lack of communication and cross-collaboration. The silo walls are created with us-vs.-them constructs. Siloed organizations often have teams or entire departments that work in isolation or bubbles, away from the rest of the organization. This narrow focus neglects outside stimulus, tunneling the siloed group into a survival mentality regarding their functional areas. The whole is subjugated by the parts. The insidious effects of silo construction are often not noticed in their incremental parts. Many times, the lack of awareness, energy or desire to remove silos expedites their depth. And once the groundwork of siloed organizations is laid, the rest happens with little effort.
Gordon Graham asserts, “If it is predictable, it's preventable.” Predicting silos means we need to pay attention to early indicators of their presence. Third-person pronouns – they, them, their, the department, etc. – can be isolationist terms. For example, “If only they would pull their weight, we (my team/silo) could get something done around here!” Sound familiar?
Variations of this statement have echoed from the station kitchen tables for as long as the fire service has been around. So, what’s the problem? Many conversions center around the officers at the station driving organizational tempo and culture. Before we dismiss comments like the one above, we need to understand where the silo is built.
When the internal dialogue among fire service membership turns into us vs. them, the inherent challenge of teams comes into focus and, without action, can become a significant problem. This disconnect can lead to tension, loss of productivity and, in the worst case, safety concerns.
Disenfranchised firefighters and officers are another concerning issue that arises in siloed organizations. When individuals are stripped of their formal or informal power and cannot speak up, the foundation is being laid for a significant problem. Employees and managers must feel as if they will be able to work together. When they are pitted against one another or just ignored, it shouldn’t be a surprise to then see an increase in turnover rates and organizational strife.
Another tell-tale sign of a siloed fire service organization is the duplication of tasks. This is the signature signal of miscommunication or the loss of communication. When people cannot decide who receives information or directives, or assign the job to multiple people, mass confusion occurs.
Disassembling silos is the key to stopping any further damage and challenges that may already exist within the fire department.
With remote work at an all-time high during the pandemic, more silos emerged and many existing silos deepened. The work disconnect was stronger than ever. To retain formality and a semblance of a schedule, many fire service officers at the administrative level allowed their employees to work on their own time when and where this is appropriate, with regular check-ins with their team throughout the day. Using various forms of communication gave members the chance to select one that works best for their situation and schedule. Some prefer to communicate in writing, while others might choose a video call. This helped promote connections and open lines of communication during a time that could naturally lead to increased siloing.
Another key step is to find ways to create empowered teams. General Stan McChrystal calls them “Teams of Teams.” For smaller fire service organizations, this might not be applicable, but for larger departments, it is essential to create teams. A large department will not have individual meetings and connections but rather team meetings. They have to communicate with one another as they work on projects together, highlighting the importance of staying on task and ensuring that everything is “on time, on target.” Creating chains of communication for these teams to talk with one another and other groups is essential. Note: This is the decentralization of command. This isn’t the creation of more teams, but rather, empowering them.
No matter how it is done, it is essential to find ways for organizational members to come together in a collaborative environment. To stop the isolation of people within an organization through silos, senior leadership teams must explore and be open to new ways to connect and communicate with our membership. Without this, we will be unable to remain properly connected and informed. Whether through Zoom meetings or virtual chats, it is important for people to talk, share and stay on task – and support one another.
This also applies to finding ways to create organizational learning. In the fire service, we develop training and methods for people to share, learn and improve themselves and their emergency response skills. One of the most generic ways to promote connectedness rather than siloing is to encourage and incentivize the team atmosphere. Many fire service organizations don’t follow this approach, and it is shocking how many departments could be of better service to their communities and personnel if they chose to emphasize teamwork.
The integration of teams within an organization is accessible no matter the size of your department. Encouraging a team atmosphere is as easy as setting goals for the organization and company officers. If people feel they are all working toward something together, they feel more connected and purposeful in their obligations. If firefighters are feeling unsure about where they might be failing, they should feel encouraged and supported in their effort to perform a review at the company level and discover the leaks in their productivity and atmosphere.
Stop silo recurrence
Now that silos can be identified and dismantled, there are ways to retain the internal peace of the department. One of the best ways to ensure that silos do not return within your organization is through the practice of servant leadership.
Servant leadership is essential because it depends on the purpose of the team. Instead of focusing on the administration and quantitative data as the sole supplier of recognition, servant leadership looks at the people involved and seeks to improve individuals’ skill and make them more integral to the team. Teaching servant leadership is a pivotal way to retain employees and demonstrate the organization's commitment to its mission, vision and values. With everyone on the same page and focused on the same goals, fire service organizations will find that they have more success than they can imagine in the future.
Preventing siloing is also essential due to the after-effects of the pandemic. Many administrative personnel for municipal fire departments want to remain at home, but fire service organizations need to ensure that people do not stagnate into silos and teams do not begin to fail in their communication abilities.
There are simple ways to improve these issues, including studying the optimal way to work from home. This would help their employees and create more unity with the company's understanding of their employee experiences. Optimal scheduling and planning can be done by finding the best time and frequency of meetings, establishing freedom of schedule or at least blocks for people to work, and finding ways to incorporate offline updates. With the connectivity of the internet, programs and software are available at all times.
Such work-from-home approaches will differ for every organization, but it will be important that department leadership take the time to study the options to prevent silos. If they do not take the time to explore these issues and find ways to make the work-from-home schedule adequate, individuals will not be connected, might become disenfranchised, and then the siloing begins.
Siloed organizations can hinder the productivity and cohesiveness of the entire organization. When teams begin to shift focus from their primary purpose, and a battle among teams or managers and employees becomes the norm, collectively, as fire service professionals, we must find ways to stop the siloing.
The long-term losses from siloed organizations include failures on the fireground, frustrations at the individual and company officer level, and often lead to increased employee turnover rates. Working from home will not disappear, and it will likely even become more ingrained in society as an adaptive solution. Pandemic or not, fire service professionals will have to work harder than ever to prove their teams can remain connected and on task. Otherwise, we will continue to struggle with silos as an unwelcomed disruptive force in our departments.
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