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  • Benjamin Martin

Complacent and Actively Disengaged: What can be done about correcting poor attitudes?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone whose outlook or attitude about the fire service is so crappy you either found yourself exhausted afterward or perhaps even gave up in the middle for lack of making any progress?

As leaders, we are often tasked with realigning people's perspective and/or performance to the expectations of the organization. Accomplishing this typically involves having to have "difficult" conversations with people whose own values and interest about the fire service may not resemble much of our own. I've struggled at times throughout my years to understand how someone could have such a poor attitude about a job that is so easy to love? But nevertheless, every year organizations including the fire service find only about 33% of their members are actively engaged in the job (Gallup Polling). What's even worse, another third of our organizations have members considered "actively disengaged"--which means they are actively working against the grain and health of the culture. It's not hard to figure out who is who, just spend ten minutes listening to the conversation at the firehouse kitchen table.

When I was a newly promoted fire officer I came face to face with this example of crappy attitude. Unfortunately, my best intentions of having a conversation to motivate the employee to care more, do more, and be more ended up alienating him from wanting any of those things. No matter what option or help I presented the employee, they refused to acknowledge that they could change their mind about how they felt. But in looking back, I could have done a lot of things better for him--I could have been better. So what would I do differently?

1. Create a healthy culture: Great leaders seem to have figured out how to balance patience for mistakes without sacrificing pursuing better. It's not about turning a blind eye to unhealthy actions, but a leader must understand that health or lasting change don't appear overnight. You can't decide someone needs to lose 20 lbs and be mad at them when they show up the next day at the same weight. Jocko calls this sacrificing the short term with an eye towards the bigger picture. In my error, I created too much change too soon, without building the necessary relationships to secure buy-in, and for the majority of the group it was overwhelming.

2. Root out politics and communication problems: Leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni offers that "People in a healthy organization, beginning with their leaders, learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion getting in their way, they cycle through problems and rally around solutions much faster than their dysfunctional and political rivals do. Moreover, they create environments in which employees do the same" (2012, The Advantage).

Picture this: When you show up to work do you have strong senior members mentoring and coaching newer hires? As a supervisor, do you spend your time dreaming of things that would be challenging and fun to pursue for your shift, such as training in acquired structures? Or do you cringe while driving to work wondering if anyone will bother to actually check the truck out without you having to ask, followed by situations in which you as the supervisor have to supply 100% of the motivation to get stuff done? The answers to these questions begin to paint a picture of exactly how much or little health your organization is currently experiencing.

3. Pass it on: The thing about healthy organizations is that health begets more health. It happens this way because our culture passes down the expectations from the generation of one worker to the next. The junior member is learning while he's mentored by the senior guy, that one day he'll be expected to the do the same. If you are wondering how healthy your team or organization is, spend five minutes at the kitchen table at shift change, and see what kind of things dominate the talk over coffee.

Every organization has a heartbeat. Regardless of your position in your agency, each day you show up to work and choose to be a pacemaker, generating activity on your team that will benefit the community you serve, the people you work with, and the organization you belong to. Consistent and intentional actions that reflect the core value of service to others move teams and organizations forward. Healthy teams and organizations have an inherent ability to resist the viruses of selfish, complacent, and unmotivated people. Time to go do work.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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