CornerStone: June 2012
Building high-performance fire-department teams
Written by Lyle Quan
I was invited to speak at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Toronto in May about how to develop a cohesive and high-performing team. This excited me because I have always believed in the strength of teamwork. Part of a leader’s development is appreciating the value of this type of growth and depending upon his or her team to help get things done. This, in turn, lends itself to promoting a strong and vibrant organization. Although a team is made up of individuals with varying personalities, when that group is brought together with a singular focus and purpose, its members become a dynamic entity.
Let’s explore two great books on the topic of team building and how to deal with some of the dysfunctions that teams can experience. The first book is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni (2002). The second book is The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams by Ken Blanchard, Eunice Parisi-Carew and Donald Carew (2009).
Lencioni leads the reader through a parable in which a new manager must try to get her team to work as a cohesive unit. This manager has been successful in past team-building endeavours but this particular group of individuals is proving to be a real challenge. However, with dogged determination (that draws on past experiences) and a sincere desire to build a high-performing team, the manager breaks down the dysfunctions that she has witnessed into five areas that are very similar to Maslow’s theory of hierarchy, meaning that you need to create a solid foundation before the individual or the team can grow and move to the next level. The point here is that the entire team must understand what these stages are and how to work through them.
The five dysfunctions are presented in a manner that demonstrates how each level must build upon the last. The dysfunctions are absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.
A look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that an individual’s needs – physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs and self actualization – are not much different than a team’s needs:
For Lencioni’s levels:
Lencioni also points out that the key to building a cohesive team is to keep it simple: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a detailed project charter will make things more effective. I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to build a project charter; just ensure that it is easily understood by all members of the team.
- Without trust as the foundation, no team can move ahead.
- If the team is not willing to acknowledge some conflict, which might simply mean a difference of opinion, then its members will avoid conflict; open, honest and non-threatening conflict is beneficial to the growth of the team.
- All members of the team need to be committed to the goals and expected results.
- Everyone needs to be accountable for assignments and for supporting the team’s efforts.
- Team members must be results-oriented and have a clear vision of the expected outcomes.
The authors of the second book note that, “When groups are operating effectively they can solve more complex problems, make better decisions, release more creativity and do more to build individual skills and commitment than individuals working alone.”
Blanchard, et al., say the required characteristics of a high-performing team are purpose and values, empowerment, relationships and communication, flexibility, optimal performance, recognition and appreciation and morale.
The authors break down these seven areas down into greater detail. To sum them up:
Building and maintaining a high-performing team is a labour of love for leaders who wants to see their teams grow and enjoy being part of an organization that will move forward no matter what is thrown at it.
- The team needs a joint purpose.
- We need to empower team members by giving them the authority to do what is required to complete their tasks.
- Relationships are built on trust and support, along with constant, open and honest communication.
- The team and its leader must be flexible to adjust to the changing needs of the project.
- You must celebrate your wins by recognizing them and demonstrating a sincere appreciation for the work being done by all.
- To keep morale high, encourage each other, support each other and trust each other.
Lyle Quan is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle is an instructor for two Canadian universities and has worked with many departments in the areas of leadership, safety and risk management. E-mail: