When fire departments experience some type of team failure, disgruntled employees, difficult implementation of a new policy or other internal issues, it is natural for many to say that a lack of communications is the problem. There are some common mistakes and misconceptions regarding organizational communications. However, there are often deeper organizational problems that contribute to real and perceived road blocks with information flow. Let’s look at the top signs that indicate it’s time to improve communications within your department:
- Quantity over Quality: Just because you produce and distribute a lot of information doesn’t mean you are communicating effectively. Many organizations mistake the volume of communications for quality communications. Amid daily memos and the multitude of emails about upcoming events, births, deaths, training opportunities, etc., it is easy to miss critical operational information. Firefighters are not sitting in front of a computer waiting on your next message. So sending vast amounts of emails is not the answer to providing quality information.
- Leader’s Location: Most departments have multiple work locations that are directly supervised by offsite personnel. Time and responsibilities limit opportunities for face-to-face communications, and when possible it may be necessarily brief. It is common for leaders to spend more time communicating with those who are geographically close to them. A message may become condensed when repeating it multiple times throughout a shift.
- Organizational Processes: It is very easy for bureaucracies to add layer after layer of accountability to ensure policy compliance. If not intentionally structured to reduce friction it quickly becomes a barrier to accomplishment. Streamlining processes can improve the quality of communications. Multi-layered approvals for everything from equipment requests to payroll errors sets organizational leaders up for failure. These layers are no different than pinch points with an advancing hose line. Extra time and resources are required to negotiate the obstacle, making us less efficient.
- Inconsistent Messages: When members of the organization hear one thing and see another this creates uncertainty and destroys trust. Inconsistency is a common mistake that confuses those on the receiving end and undermines the credibility of future communications.
- Lack of Collaboration: In some organizations separate divisions function as though they are in competition. This silo effect limits the open flow of communication between those that play key roles in completing the strategic puzzle. The silo mindset also spills over to individual members who become reluctant to share critical information.
- Organizational Structure: Most departments understand and operate response under the incident command system where responsibilities and authority are clearly defined. However, in the day-to-day management of the department many organizational structures are in place to satisfy the most powerful people in the organization. Maybe a trusted friend is promoted to a new position outside of his/her previous division but is allowed to retain management responsibilities of certain units or departments in their old division. Personalization of an organizational structure leads to duplicated effort, confusion and inefficiency.
- Misalignment of Human Resources: Some organizations spend a great deal of time ensuring that the styles and talents of individuals match up with other members, the mission and assigned duties. Others just assign the next person in line with little thought to functionality, personality and skill set. When employees are viewed as single resources or “warm bodies” merely filling a vacancy, poor communications is inevitable.
- Lack of Honest Feedback: Many managers openly ask for feedback and then become very defensive and often use the feedback against the person providing it. Once an employee is attacked, passed over for promotion or reassigned to another position as a result of providing honest feedback, the handwriting is on the wall. Other members are quick to adapt and modify their responses to only endorse what they think the manager wants to hear.
- Selective Distribution: Information is often associated with power. When leaders cherry pick who gets information based on personality and not organizational function, the people who need the information are sometimes the last ones to know. This again attacks the trust within the organization leading to a breakdown in communications.
- Lack of Direction and Purpose: Most every department has a mission statement and list of core values, but are they real? Do they actual mean anything to our organization and members? The military uses the term “commander’s intent” in much of their training. Officers and leaders are trained to communicate the purpose and intent of the mission and not just to issue orders. This allows individuals involved in the work to accomplish this mission and adapt their approach when faced with adversities that are not part of the formal policy or plan. This creates an empowerment of the workforce to accomplish the mission and get results. If leadership has not provided a meaningful and relatable direction and purpose then individuals or divisions create their own. When this occurs it is the same as asking musicians to play together without knowledge of the music on the program.
Effective communication is critical in the fire service. Your life may depend on your ability to communicate clearly, so it is important to put a good communication flow in place and to work on its continual improvement.