‘The rumor meal’: Elevate the kitchen table by eliminating gossip
Help create a welcoming space by using the time gathered together to empower, uplift and inspire your colleagues, instead of belittling and bad-mouthing
By Matthew Caward
Of all the rooms and places in a firehouse, the kitchen table is where the most conversation occurs – and not just at mealtimes. The kitchen table is where we debate and discuss our most intense problems and issues. It’s where we tackle family concerns, departmental grievances and crew dilemmas, and where we occasionally conduct tabletop training.
It’s where we solve all the world’s problems – or at least try.
However, the kitchen table is also the center of one of the fire service’s greatest cancers. While the risk of occupational cancer from on-the-job exposures is a real issue of which every firefighter must be aware and champion efforts to reduce their risks, I am speaking about a metaphorical cancer – an organizational cancer that can lead to the destruction of your organization’s morale, people and culture. Specifically, the cancer of malicious gossip and negativity – the rumor mill, or better yet, the rumor meal in the context of our kitchen table time.
The toxic effect of gossip on organizations
You’ve probably heard this phrase about quickly spreading information: “Telephone, telefax or tele-firefighter.” That’s just how commonplace gossip is in our industry. And while this reference seems easy to laugh at, the issue itself is not funny at all. Gossip is the quickest and most effective way to undermine an organization’s culture.
Dede Henley, a contributing writer with Forbes magazine, highlights the negative effects of gossip within an organization: “Gossip erodes trust and morale, increases anxiety among employees, creates divisiveness, Damages reputations, causes attrition as good employees leave, and creates unhealthy environments.”
Good leaders know that gossip is bad for an organization’s health and culture. According to Small Business Simplifier: “Gossip diminishes trust, destroys reputations, reduces morale and productivity, and will cost you employees.”
FireRescue1’s own Gordon Graham, when speaking on the danger of gossip, says this: “Negative gossip can cause a gradual deterioration of trust and morale. There may be a decline in productivity when there's negativity in the workplace. It can increase anxiety and tension. This may result in a turnover of personnel and a loss of good, solid talent.”
‘Winners assemble as a team’
Inside the players’ locker room at the Baltimore Ravens practice facility in Owings Mills, Maryland, hangs a plaque that is inscribed with a quote from Emlen Tunnell, a Hall-of-Famer and former New York Giants defensive back. It reads: "Losers assemble in little groups and complain about the coaches and the players in other little groups, while WINNERS assemble as a team.”
We are not a team simply because we wear the same uniform; we are a team because we respect, trust and sacrifice for one another. Not just because of the willingness to give up our lives for each other (which is the most incredible and honorable thing imaginable), but also that we sacrifice the one thing we can never get back each day we come to work – time. We sacrifice significant time away from our loved ones.
A firefighter doesn’t always get to see the first steps or hear the first words of a new child. A firefighter doesn’t always get to attend the recital or watch the first pitch being thrown out. Often, a firefighter doesn’t get to celebrate holidays, birthdays or anniversaries on the days they occur. Time away is the ongoing sacrifice that every firefighter willingly makes to answer this remarkable calling.
With that in mind, let’s honor our family’s sacrifice by making the most of the time we are at the firehouse. Let’s train and challenge each other to be better. Let’s be infectiously positive and empowering. Let’s lead each other to be highly skilled and motivated experts in our profession. Don’t waste your family’s sacrifice of “time away” by disparaging another person, employee or supervisor, or even your own family members (spouse, ex-wife/husband), regardless of what they did or didn’t do.
Stop discussing people’s failures or perceived mistakes just to belittle them in a juvenile attempt to make yourself look better. The reality is that you discredit yourself when you belittle another person. If you have criticism that will improve someone’s performance, be a pro and deliver it to them yourself. Not behind their back. If you have an issue with management or leadership, have the courage to address the issue with them respectfully. If it is a good idea, it should stand on its own merit; be bold and present it as such. It is far too easy to complain.
This is even more critical for leaders. As a leader, never badmouth another leader or officer, and never teach those you supervise that it is acceptable to badmouth others. Be a great example of leadership by being positive or simply holding your tongue when you haven’t got anything uplifting to say about someone else. Reserve criticism or coaching for the person it is intended for, and do it with them face to face. Remember, praise publicly and critique privately.
If you want to be a great leader, you must first be a great teammate. Show your team what that looks like and model the behavior for them, especially when discussions begin at the kitchen table. This is a critical leadership opportunity for you and your crew; don’t waste these moments by going along with the negativity and NEVER discredit yourself by badmouthing someone else.
‘The kitchen table should be above negativity’
Eleanor Roosevelt stated: “Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.” Be a leader or a teammate who is constantly discussing ideas and challenging each other to be better.
Let’s start a revolution in the fire service. Let’s elevate the kitchen table and what it means. The kitchen table is a sacred place. It is sacred because of who gathers around it. It is a very rare group of people that get to have a seat at THIS TABLE. The opportunity of sitting at a firehouse kitchen table comes at great cost. It is an expensive seat that not many are willing to pay for, so treat it with the sanctity it deserves. Use the space to empower each other, challenge each other, and positively motivate each other to be better than we were yesterday.
The next time you’re at the firehouse kitchen table and the conversation turns negative or someone starts bad-mouthing a colleague, another officer, management or the chief, will you have the courage to change the subject to something more positive? Or will you leave the table and set the standard that you will have no part of this type of behavior, especially at the kitchen table? This is a great opportunity for you to be courageous and to be a leader that sets standards that are different then the norm.
The kitchen table should be above negativity. Elevate its significance by never allowing yourself or anyone else to soil such a sacred place.
The NFL of firefighting
John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, would often remind his players that everything you say and do, both on and off the field, reflects your brand. Your brand is who you are, and it is on display for the world to see. Make sure you protect your brand. How you show up to work, what you do at work, what you say, and how you perform your job IS YOUR BRAND. What does your brand mean to you?
Remember, when you bad-mouth others, it is not their character on display, but your own. Have a higher opinion of yourself and your brand than to engage in such behavior. Raise your level of professionalism by being a force of positivity and empowerment. Remind each other that when you arrive at work, this is the apex of firefighting; this is the highest level of what we do. We are in the “NFL of firefighting.” Professionals hold themselves and their teammates accountable and to the highest of standards. You are so much better than badmouthing a colleague or belittling management. Your brand deserves much better, so start holding yourself to a higher standard.
Change starts at the top
Officers, let this be OUR call to raise the level of sanctity for that kitchen table in your station. It is a sacred place of honor, a place where we enjoy meals together as a team and a family. A place where we train and hold each other accountable to be great at what we do. A place to inspire one another and be a positive influencer and not what author Jon Gordon would call an “energy vampire.” This begins with the leaders in the house – company officers. Be an agent of change and reinforce the sacredness of the firehouse kitchen table.
You only get one chance at this life. You get one career and a limited number of shifts together in that career. Why would we ever waste a single moment of it bad-mouthing your fellow firefighters or spouses, leadership or anyone else? Not very many people are lucky enough to serve in this career. Don’t you dare waste this opportunity. Take advantage of those kitchen table conversations because those moments will be what you miss the most when you retire from this career and no longer get to have “a seat at that table”. Remember how lucky we truly are to be a part of the greatest calling in the world. If that doesn’t motivate you to raise your brand, nothing will.
In the words of former NCAA Division 2 national champion Coach Jack Harbaugh, “Whose got it better than us? Noooobody!” Let’s start acting like it!
About the author
Matt Caward is currently a captain with the Bernalillo County Fire Department in Albuquerque, N.M. He has 18 years with BCFD and 21 years in the fire service. Matt has a master’s degree in business administration and theology and is a current Doctoral student with Liberty University. He is the first credentialed CPSE fire officer (FO) in the state of New Mexico and is also the founder of the Duke City Gladiators professional arena football team located in Albuquerque. Matt has coached professional football for six seasons after a brief playing career. He can be reached via email.