Enhanced engagement: What firefighters really want from their direct supervisors
Feedback, active listening and personal connections are critical to crew cohesion
I have met a lot of firefighters, even a few from across the globe. It seems that the overarching complaints from most firefighters typically involve staffing challenges and bad bosses. Some places have great staffing, with poor leadership, with others bolstering their ranks with awesome officers who have hardly anyone to supervise.
In a time where we are forced to do more with less, working under the supervision of poorly trained, inexperienced or out-of-touch supervisors can feel suffocating. And while there’s not always a clear path for how to manage our staffing woes, there are simple ways to improve our supervisory efforts.
The What Firefighters Want survey spotlighted some interesting facets of supervision, including how supervisors provide feedback and recognize their members, as well as their effectiveness in the areas of listening, valuing varied perspectives, and making personal connections.
The breadth of questions got me thinking about the areas in my professional life where I perform well as a supervisor, plus other areas where I can undoubtedly improve. Let’s explore some of the responses from the nearly 2,500 respondents, sharing their observations about their direct supervisors on and off the fireground.
Because feedback is such an essential element of the supervisor-subordinate relationship, the survey sought information about the regularity of this information-sharing.
It’s good to see 28% of respondents reporting regular performance feedback, with another 35% who “sometimes” have meetings. It’s disappointing, however, to see 37% of respondents who never or only rarely get these opportunities. Performance feedback is a must for supervisors who hope to eliminate future mistakes and improve service delivery, plus it’s a critical part of professional development. Every experience offers an opportunity to learn, and supervisors must be in the habit of providing timely, focused performance feedback, whether in a formal (evaluation) or informal setting. An after-action review is an example of constructive performance feedback.
Here's another reality in our occupation – mistakes happen. Providing both a supportive and understanding work environment will help you recover from these potential setbacks. Experiences are learning opportunities. In our survey, 59% of respondents agreed that their supervisors help them learning from their mistakes. Kudos to those supervisors who make this a priority. You get it.
Of course, recognition and praise are also powerful gestures from supervisors. I was happy to see that two-thirds of the respondents receive this type of positive feedback. Recognize those members who go the extra mile. Remember, it’s your job to submit the paperwork for those department award ceremonies. A little thank you goes a long way.
Clearly, a lack of feedback can be frustrating. But remember, it goes both ways. Imagine a supervisor’s frustration when they reach out to members for their insights but get crickets in return. Remember your desire for supervisor feedback and consider their similar needs, especially since their decisions will likely have a direct impact on you.
So, when the opportunity presents itself to offer constructive feedback, take advantage. There is a gradual shift in our industry where officers and leaders are becoming more open to feedback, even criticism, and want open communication. This is a good thing, and as the opportunities become more available, the other desired aspects of this survey can shift for the better too.
Members need and want to be heard when interacting with their supervisors. The good news: Nearly 50% of survey respondents reported that their supervisor actively listens to them often – a good starting point, but we can improve. After all, being present for your members and helping them manage their concerns, however insignificant, is a supervisor responsibility that builds trust and confidence quickly.
This is an area that I have tried to really improve in, especially when I was first promoted to company officer. However, over time, I have come to understand the difference between being available and being present in relation to personnel. It is so easy for the daily distractions to edge into your meeting time with members, whether that’s a formal meeting or an informal pop-in.
As an officer, when one of your people engages you unannounced, give them your time. The other tasks can wait a few more minutes. If the conversation presents a serious or time-consuming situation, prioritize the conversation or ask the employee to schedule a follow-up meeting. The latter is especially helpful if the issue requires you to investigate circumstances or research information for the issue at hand. Make sure the member feels heard, even if you need to set up a follow-up discussion.
And to the 13% of supervisors who never hold one-on-one meetings, this is unacceptable. You are failing your members. Whether intentionally or not, you are not providing an opportunity for your people to communicate openly with you. Lack of time, discomfort with confrontation or lack of direction to hold such meetings are all lame excuses. You need to connect with your members!
Input and perspective
The survey revealed that 70% of respondents feel positively about their supervisor valuing their input and perspective. Holding meetings and active listening go a long way toward showing this, but there’s more we can do to reinforce that we do, in fact, value them.
Leadership can be lonely sometimes. We often do not know all of the answers or how to proceed with every process that’s added to our mounting task list. In those non-emergent, quick-decision moments, a little collaboration can go a long way for achieving success. We are all members of a team working for the same organization with the same vision. Encourage your members to speak up, and listen to their ideas.
A tip for subordinates: Offering advice to your boss can be an uncomfortable dialogue. Respectful delivery is key to the effectiveness of your communication, especially if you feel that your working relationship fits into the other 30% of this category where your boss doesn’t necessarily value your input. Take the opportunity to show your supervisor that you have a unique perspective and valuable insights.
“Just more personal interaction. Asking how things are outside of the department.”
That’s a direct quote from one of the survey respondents, underscoring the importance of connection between supervisors and subordinates.
Surely, we all already know that the fire service is a unique ecosystem to work – it’s really a way of life more than an occupation in some respects. We live through our shifts with other “coworkers” – people we’ll likely become very close to over time. It is hard not to learn about one another; good or bad, as we respond, train and eat throughout the long shift hours together.
I was caught off-guard that nearly one-third of respondents reported that their supervisors do not regularly ask about their personal life. I understand that you can’t know everything about your members and certainly don’t want to pry into their personal lives, especially if they are private people by nature; however, there’s nothing wrong with asking about Sunday’s game or how their kid’s driving test went while pouring your morning coffee. All of this support the overall sense of teamwork and camaraderie among our brothers and sisters.
How do you stack up?
While the responses show a generally positive trend related to supervisor actions, there’s clearly still work to do, as evidenced by the hundreds of respondents who are not experiencing positive engagements with their supervisors.
Supervisors, I encourage you to pause for a moment to consider how your subordinates would have rated your actions. Are you an active listener? Do you value their input? What is your stance on asking about members’ personal lives?
No one ever said managing personnel was easy, but it is essential to crew cohesion and, on a bigger scale, department retention. Focus on your members, listen to their needs. You’ll get a lot more done with an open mind and ears than assuming you know what they want and how they feel about the boss.