Leadership Forum: Steps to solving personnel problems
Whether we like it or not, one of the main responsibilities of every leader, especially for chief officers, is to deal with problems. In fact, I spend the majority of each day dealing with problems, issues and challenges as they arise.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of an officer’s responsibilities are non-operational in nature, we spend very little of our staff development and training time teaching officers how to lead others and deal with departmental problems.
We would never expect (or allow) a new firefighter with no experience or training to assume command of an incident. But all too often we expect new officers to magically know how to deal with interpersonal issues when they arise, simply by virtue of being promoted.
Dealing with problems that involve other people can be difficult, especially when emotions run high and people are upset. In my experience, dealing with issues requires two separate and progressive strategies – problem leadership and problem management.
The goal of problem leadership is for the direct supervisor to identify the problem and personally assist the affected worker through the problem to the resolution, without escalating the issue. At this stage, the outcome is largely up to the worker. As the direct supervisor, there are three steps to follow as you lead someone through to a resolution. First, identify the problem that needs to be corrected. Secondly, suggest a suitable way to resolve to the issue and assist the worker to implement the corrective action. Finally, support the worker through the transition and ensure that a positive and supportive environment is maintained.
I recently saw this approach work very well when a captain identified problematic behaviour in one of his firefighters. The captain privately addressed his observations directly with the firefighter, and explained the damage the firefighter was doing to himself and his crew. The captain then suggested corrective actions. In this case, the captain’s recommendations were embraced and this issue was resolved without damage, discipline, or further incident.
This approach could be seen as an informal means of resolution, or even coaching, without escalating to the second stage: problem management.
Problem management begins when an attempt to lead or coach someone through an issue is unsuccessful, or the colleague rejects the opportunity to resolve the issue, forcing the leader to escalate the issue up the chain of command. This could involve the fire chief, human resources or, in severe cases, legal services.
The goal of problem management is to limit the damage caused while an issue is being investigated or corrected. This is the stage where more senior leaders become engaged and, as such, the outcome is no longer determined by the worker.
Problem management also involves three steps. Firstly, the damage must be limited. This may mean removing the involved individuals from the workplace, while the second step – a full investigation – can be completed. This can be a complex and challenging process. Department leaders are often required to conduct interviews and investigations, to determine the root cause of the issue. Once the causes have been identified, the final stage of problem management is completed when corrective action is implemented.
If the firefighter in the example above had rejected his captain’s advice, refused to make corrections, or accept responsibility for his actions, the captain would have no choice but to escalate the issue. A chief officer would then have to take steps to limit the damage, while imposing corrective action and discipline to formally address the issue.
As leaders, it is always preferable when we can guide others to resolve their own problems. But, all too often, people refuse to take responsibility for their own situation, giving the officer no choice but to escalate the issue to problem management.
Being a leader in today’s fire service is not an easy task. The higher you climb in the chain of command, the more time you will spend managing problems. A fire chief must be a highly skilled coach, leader and manager, who can address a multitude of problems as they arise.
If you aspire to be an effective chief officer, I suggest investing in management education and training. Take the time to enrol in personnel management training, and find a mentor who you can ask for advice when you need it. Your success as a senior leader will depend on it.
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