How to lead without being a jerk

jerk

By Linda Willing

I recently wrote a column about working with older, less motivated crews. In this column, I said that officers must insist on accountability with their crews, but “you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”

In response to this column, a reader contacted me.

“What about the times when you have to be a jerk?” he said.

I asked him to clarify.

“Well, what about the situation where you’ve given a firefighter several warnings and he’s still coming to work late? Or a firefighter won’t wear full protective gear no matter what you do?”

“Write them up,” I said.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he replied. “They force you to be a jerk and write them up.”

Not if you discipline, but how
But writing someone up or imposing other reasonable discipline is not the same as being a jerk. Many officers get confused about this. They mix up what they do with how they do it.

It is certainly possible to be a jerk when writing people up. You can yell at them, berate them, make sarcastic comments, compare them unfavorably to others, or make irrelevant personal observations to support your actions.

You also can be nice when holding others accountable. You can ask about personal problems, empathize with individual challenges in combining home and work life, offer support in finding resources to help.

These actions and attitudes will make a disciplinary encounter go better in most cases, but cannot be used in lieu of setting clear standards and holding people to them.

Empathy and discipline
In the case of the chronically late firefighter, it would be good to know that this person is going through a divorce, or struggling with alcohol abuse, or is distracted due to the recent death of a friend. You can listen empathetically and offer specific support options. You can make a point of checking in with the firefighter privately in coming weeks to see how things are going.

But that firefighter still has to find a way to make it to work on time.

The key to a successful disciplinary conversation is preparation. What is the specific problem? When has it occurred and under what circumstances?

Don’t tell a firefighter, “You never wear your full protective gear on emergency scenes.” Be specific about actions and dates. Instead, say something like, “On the fire last night, I noticed that you never put on your bunker pants and boots while you were operating the pump, despite the fact I told you to do so at the beginning of the incident. Two weeks ago on the Elm Street fire, the same thing happened.”

It is important to be clear about accountability. Know what authority you have and what consequences are possible or required before starting the conversation.

For example, if your department has specific progressive discipline for things like being late to work, be clear that you are imposing that progressive discipline.

You might say, “You’ve been late to work twice in the last two months. I told you last time that if it happened again within the next six months, I would be writing you up in a formal way. It’s only been three weeks since the last incident, and you were late again today. So I am writing you up.” 

Being a credible leader
Following disciplinary protocols in a fair way does not make you a jerk. On the contrary, it makes you a credible leader. You can be compassionate when imposing discipline, asking about factors that are contributing to the problem behavior and offering support. But the problem behavior must be dealt with.

Most officers want their crews to like them. There is nothing wrong with this. A well-liked officer is often a more effective officer, but only if that officer is also focused on holding crews to clear and consistent standards of behavior, both on and off the emergency scene.

It is good to be liked. It is critical to be respected. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Imposing fair discipline when that discipline is called for is not being a jerk. It’s being a leader.

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