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Guest Column: February 2014

As you manoeuvre through life, you will undoubtedly run into some very motivated people.

February 10, 2014
By Richard Gasaway

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As you manoeuvre through life, you will undoubtedly run into some very motivated people. You may also observe people who seemingly lack motivation. What motivates the exceptional to high achievement? And why are the low achievers unmotivated? The latter question is one I get asked often by frustrated chiefs and officers.

Motivation is an internal drive that compels behaviour. A person can be motivated to do good or motivated to do evil. Someone can also be motivated to great accomplishments or motivated to do nothing. Motivated to do nothing? That’s right.

Even the decision to do nothing is one based on motivation. That seemingly lazy, unmotivated employee or co-worker who frustrates you is highly motivated. Sadly, that person, for whatever reason, is highly motivated to do nothing – or at least highly motivated to not do what you want him or her to do.

This leads us to a discussion of behaviour that is desirable and behaviour that is undesirable.

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As it relates to first responders operating in emergency situations, behaviour can be classified into one of two categories: desired and undesired. Desired behaviour is that rooted in safety and best practices. Hopefully this behaviour is taught during basic training, reinforced during ongoing training, and promoted and encouraged during emergency responses. Undesired behaviour is rooted in unsafe actions and practices. Unfortunately, undesirable behaviour can also be taught during training or can develop over time as a result of drifting away from best practices during emergency responses.

Behaviour is encouraged or discouraged with reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive – for example, providing something desirable or withholding something undesirable – or negative, such as withholding something desired or providing something undesired.

Behaviour, both positive and negative, is influenced by reinforcement, both positive and negative. Here are a few examples:

  • Positive reinforcement of desired behaviour
  • Negative reinforcement of undesired behaviour
  • Positive reinforcement of undesired behaviour
  • Negative reinforcement of desired behaviour

It is the last of these four psychological principles that I want to address – the positive reinforcement of undesired behaviour. Supervisors who choose to take the easy route and fail to address situations in which subordinates perform unsafe acts that are inconsistent with best practices, shirk their responsibilities and obligations to the organization. When there is no accountability for undesired behaviour, it becomes acceptable behaviour.

Some supervisors feel their effectiveness is measured by their popularity. An effective supervisor does not, by the nature of the position, need to be adversarial. But the supervisor has a role to play and that role should first and foremost be ensuring the safety and well-being of subordinates. Accountability trumps popularity.

Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator. It can compel a member to perform best practices out of fear or desire – fear of being admonished (negative reinforcement) if the best practice is not performed or desire for approval from peers (positive reinforcement) when the best practice is performed.

Peers can have an adverse impact on motivation and performance as well. Firefighters are part of a tight-knit family, and acceptance and approval is an important part of the social hierarchy. If the majority (or the vocal minority) of the peer group does not support a safety-related best practice, the consequences in the form of peer admonishment (negative reinforcement of the desired behaviour) can cause the individual to abandon best practices to conform.

Peer pressure can be especially strong for new members who want to fit in. I recently observed recruits participating in training at a military-style fire academy. The instructors were very regimented and everything had to be performed to best practices. During a discussion at lunch I asked the instructors what happens to the students after they graduate and get assigned to a company in the city. The response was telling: “Peer pressure will break them down and they’ll stop doing many of the best practices we teach within the first 30 days.”


Dr. Richard B. Gasaway joined the fire service in 1979 and has worked for six emergency services agencies including serving as a career fire chief for 20 years. Gasaway’s doctoral research is focused on the neuroscience of decision making under stress and the barriers that impact situational awareness. Contact Gasaway at rich@richgasaway.com and follow him on Twitter at @SAMatters


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