Fire station civility: A key factor in member performance and retention

In one study, “demonstrating respect” was identified as the top leadership quality for creating commitment and engagement among members

When I talk with fire service leaders about the importance of civility, the reaction is often mixed. On the one hand, they acknowledge the value of a workplace where people treat one another with respect and courtesy. They all admire Chief Alan Brunacini and his admonition to “Be Nice.”           

On the other hand, they have reservations. People are who they are, they say. Some of their best firefighters are a little rough around the edges. And is it really possible to teach people to be more civil anyway?

For some, the reaction is stronger. For them, talking about civility just seems like so much woke, PC nonsense. It’s a tough job, they say. You can’t coddle people. If someone gets their feelings hurt, well, maybe they should go find another job.

"Valuing and fostering civility in the workplace is not about being politically correct. It’s about maximizing the effectiveness and durability of the team and the organization as a whole," writes Willing. (Photo/John Odegard)

Valuing and fostering civility in the workplace is not about being politically correct. It’s about maximizing the effectiveness and durability of the team and the organization as a whole. And it’s even more critical to get it right in challenging and stressful environments like the fire service.

The incivility impact

In “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” Christine Porath highlights critical research on the impact of civility. Research shows that rude and disrespectful behavior has far-reaching consequences among teams and individuals. One study found that those who had been routinely treated in an uncivil manner were more likely to decrease their work effort, had their work performance decline, and increased their use of sick leave as a result. The vast majority of people in the study said their commitment to the organization declined as a result of mistreatment even by only one individual. Further, 12% of those surveyed said they had left a job as a result of such treatment. And such negative outcomes do not only affect those who are directly targeted for mistreatment. People who witnessed such behavior within their organizations reported similar bad effects.

Other studies about incivility show that it can reduce concentration and attention to detail among those who experience it. Pervasive incivility leads to a culture where people are less likely speak up to problems or errors they observe. This type of culture has been directly linked to medical errors.

Fostering civility in the workplace does not mean that people must become robots, unable to take a joke or kid around with others. But there is a big difference between joking around that is mutually enjoyable among equals and treatment that disrespects or marginalizes others.

Think about a person in your organization who everyone respects and wants to work with. What traits does that person have? They likely exhibit competence and courage. But almost always this person is also accessible, respectful and inclusive of others, generous with their time and experience, and a team player – someone who walks the talk.

Studies show that demonstrating respect was the most important leadership quality for creating commitment and engagement among team members. People are more likely to share information with those who treat them respectfully, and they are much more likely to seek information and advice from them.

How can we bring more civility into our workplace?

There are several ways to foster civility at the station – and really anywhere.

Remember the little things: Understand that small things matter. Making eye contact with someone when they are talking, being an attentive listener, saying please and thank you, refraining from gossip, apologizing when necessary – all these things go a long way toward establishing a tone of mutual respect and inclusion at work.           

Set expectations: Leaders can and should set clear expectations that build civility in the workplace. Most importantly, they must lead by example. If you want people to listen without distraction, then put down your phone first. If you want others to control their tempers, then make a point of controlling yours.

Ask questions: It can also be good to have the conversation. Ask: What rules or norms are we willing to hold ourselves and others accountable to? Some of these rules are already codified, such as showing up to work on time. Others may be unwritten but universally understood, such as not eating others’ food in the refrigerator. Others may not be universally recognized and accepted within the organization. Articulating these norms can set clear expectations and provide a template for civil behavior.

Watch communication channels: Pay attention to social media and other technology, which have changed everything about the ways we communicate. Making rude comments is easy on an anonymous social media page. The venue often encourages extreme reactions that an individual would never make in person. More than one firefighter has gotten into trouble for such ill-considered statements. People need to understand that their words, in any format, carry weight, and they can be held accountable for them.

Teach civility: Building a more civil workplace also requires skills. Listening well, giving and receiving feedback – these are things that don’t always come naturally, but they can be taught. And everyone needs to practice these skills. Leaders need to ask: Have we equipped people here to succeed in all aspects of their work and mission?

Beyond “Be nice”    

Civility is much more than just being nice. It isn’t about being politically correct. Instead, prioritizing civility in the workplace demonstrates that you value every individual who works there and are striving to create a culture where every person can be their best and contribute at their highest level to the common mission.

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