Conflict is bad and agreement is good, right? Well, not necessarily. In recent years, there have been many instances where firefighters have gotten in trouble not for fighting among themselves, but for agreeing too readily to things that should never have gone forward.
Remember the firefighters who took an engine to the Porn Star Costume Ball? Or the ones who made a video based on a popular commercial, that explicitly disrespected women firefighters and members of mutual aid departments?
What about the firefighters who recently made a hazing video, which you can see within this article, that simulated an armed hostage situation in the fire station? These are only a few examples of cases where groups of firefighters agreed to do things that were clearly inappropriate, and would probably never have been done by any member of the group alone.
"Groupthink" is a concept that has been around for decades, but it is a critical one for firefighters. Groupthink is defined as a faulty decision making process where members of a group strive for agreement among themselves even at the expense of making a good decision.
Groupthink is a particular problem for homogenous groups that hold group cohesion and solidarity as a high value.
Sounds like the fire service, doesn't it? In general, firefighters tend to be conflict-averse, not wanting to single themselves out apart from the group.
There are good reasons for this tendency. Fighting fire is the ultimate team activity — it cannot be done alone. Firefighters must feel that their coworkers always have their back, whether it is in a structure fire or around the station.
So when an idea comes up — for example, to stage a fake crime scene in order to mess with the new kids — and everyone seems to approve of it, being the one to step up and say no can be very difficult.
Of course, such ideas never come suddenly out of the blue, but are instead the culmination of a "can-you-top-this" session among firefighters. Once you head down that slippery slope, it can be very hard for a group to regain its footing.
And that is where leadership comes in. In most if not all of the recent instances of firefighters behaving badly, officers were directly involved. Officers could have stopped the momentum, but chose not to. Why?
It is easy to say that officers just want to be one of the guys, and therefore go along with bad behavior, or at least stand by silently while it occurs.
Perhaps some officers do not understand their role as they should. Maybe they lack skills to manage group decisions.
Maybe they are marginalized among their crews and informal leaders are really calling the shots in the station. Maybe they see being an officer as a part-time job that ends when the rig returns from the emergency call.
There is no question that company officers need much more preparation for the position than they get in most organizations. New officers learn how to write reports and command an incident, but what discussion takes place about what it really means to be an officer?
If officers are given training in skills to resolve conflict, do they also understand what it means to manage agreement? How does a new officer learn how to stand up and be a leader among the crew, even in opposition to the group mind, while still maintaining membership as part of that crew?
There are a number of ways that officers can be supported to do better. Training helps, in specific skills such as conflict resolution, decision making, and communications.
Mentoring by positive role models is a key way that new officers develop confidence and ability as leaders.
Clear and reasonable policies that are consistently applied can help diminish freelancing. Positive expectations by senior staff, along with genuine empowerment at the company officer level are key components to creating a truly professional officer cadre.
Without these support and development mechanisms in place, new officers will find their own way, and for some, this will mean going along with the common mind of their crews, for better and for worse.
Like everyone else, officers want to be accepted and valued among their peers. Learning to manage inappropriate agreement as well as disruptive conflict is part of the skill set that all officers need to have.