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Is Your Team Dysfunctional? How to Address Dysfunction.

I recently read an excellent book called "The five dysfunctions of a team". The entire time I was reading the book I was consciously and subconsciously inserting it into real world situations and personalities encountered throughout my career. I think we can all agree that effective teamwork is vital in the fire service, where lives and property are on the line.

This post is written as if speaking to those already hired however, I truly believe this is valuable to those who are trying to get hired as well as those who have been on the job for years. Enjoy.

Teams often face various dysfunctions that hinder their performance and compromise the culture and enjoyment of the best job in the world. In this blog post, we delve into the five dysfunctions of a team, as outlined by author Patrick Lencioni, and explore how they can play out within the unique context of the fire service. By understanding these dysfunctions, firefighters and leaders can identify and address them, fostering a more cohesive and high-performing team and ultimately make the job we all love that much better.

firefighter climbing a ladder

1. Absence of Trust:

Trust is the foundation of any successful team. In the fire service, the absence of trust can lead to a breakdown in communication and collaboration. When firefighters don't trust one another, they may hesitate to share important information, seek help when needed (compounding mistakes), or admit mistakes (egos abound in untrusting environments). This lack of trust erodes team cohesion and impedes effective decision-making, ultimately jeopardizing the safety of everyone involved. Outside of the operational end of the job teammates that do not trust one another are likely to suffer in silence and not reach out when they need support working through mental health issues.

2. Fear of Conflict:

Conflict is an inevitable part of teamwork, and healthy debate is essential for arriving at the best solutions. However, in a fire service team plagued by a fear of conflict, members may avoid addressing crucial issues or challenging one another's ideas. This fear stifles innovation and prevents the team from exploring different perspectives, resulting in suboptimal strategies and decisions. You may or may not have heard of the rhino and the hedgehog theory. It describes two different responses to the fear of conflict.

One response the Rhino - I will smash everyone who doesn't agree with me because I fear genuine debate or discussion around my beliefs and thoughts. (You may all know a chief officer or fellow FF like this). This approach ultimately leads to the individual alienating people or loss of respect see 1. Absence of trust.

The second response is the Hedgehog - I fear peoples judgements of what I think or believe about X so I'm going to keep it to myself and avoid discussion or disagreement. This approach often leads to internalized frustration because conflicts are rarely brought to satisfactory conclusions. In what is already a high stress job this additional stress can be poison to the individual leading to illness, sick time off, or tragically contribute to suicide statistics. This fear of judgement is rooted in 1. absence of trust.

3. Lack of Commitment:

Without commitment, a team struggles to align their efforts toward a shared goal. In the fire service, a lack of commitment can manifest as a lack of dedication to training, indifference towards organizational values, or a failure to take ownership of tasks (sufficient rig checks, adherence or SOP's). When firefighters are not fully committed, it compromises their ability to perform at their best and undermines the overall effectiveness of the team. Everyone has worked with a sad sap crew that don't want to be there and aren't enthused about the career. It's exhausting, it hurts morale, and perhaps worst of all it can be contagious.

4. Avoidance of Accountability:

Accountability ensures that team members take responsibility for their actions and deliver on their commitments. In the fire service, an avoidance of accountability can manifest as a reluctance to address underperforming team members, failing to hold oneself accountable for mistakes, or not following established protocols. This lack of accountability erodes trust, fosters a culture of mediocrity, and hampers the team's ability to achieve its objectives. The cure for ego is accountability. This is something that needs to be practiced and honed at every level of your career. If you want to consider yourself a professional that means accepting that you never arrive and will therefore always have something to learn. If you can learn from everyone and anyone in your organization, you have truly mastered your ego. If, however you find yourself blaming circumstance or others for your failures or shortcomings you may need to address your ability to take accountability for your behaviors, attitudes, and commitments.

5. Inattention to Results:

A cohesive team focuses on achieving collective results rather than individual pursuits. In the fire service, an inattention to results can manifest as personal ego, interdepartmental rivalries, or a lack of shared mission awareness. When firefighters prioritize personal gains over the team's success, it undermines collaboration and compromises the overall effectiveness of firefighting operations. The notion that "you are not special" was drilled into me at a very young age when I was in the military. This was meant both in your highs and lows. When you suffered and struggled with an evolution or drill your suffering was not unique or special. When you excelled where others struggled or did not succeed your success or prowess was not unique or special. Why? Because all that mattered was the team, the lesson to be learned was that the goal is not your personal glory but the operational objectives of the group or organization. To quote the famous preacher John Donne "no man is an island".

We need to be focused on the goal of our organization and the specific call we're attending. When were on scene of an MVA it doesn't matter how much Gucci rope stuff senior man knows. Likewise on the Cardiac arrest it doesn't matter how many nozzle forward classes you've attended. What matters is that you can focus on the goal and result we are trying to achieve. Public Safety

Now I'm sure by this point I have got you thinking about some very specific personalities in your dept or agency but I want you to also think about whether any of those could be you.

How to address Dysfunction to Build a Stronger Team:

Recognizing and addressing these dysfunctions is crucial for building a stronger team in the fire service. Here are some strategies to overcome these challenges:

1. Foster a culture of trust and psychological safety through open communication and transparency. (Be friendly and professional - its not hard). The easiest way to build trust with someone especially new guys it to train them and teach them.

2. Encourage constructive conflict resolution, where differing opinions are welcomed and valued. (Remove your ego hear and listen for what is being said. Try to imagine a world where your idea may be improved upon). The easiest way to do this is by listening and intentionally not speaking.

3. Build commitment by establishing a compelling mission, providing clarity of roles, and recognizing individual contributions. (TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN! Then when you get done with training, train some more.) Seriously creating a mindset or always being better creates buy in.

4. Promote accountability by setting clear expectations, offering constructive feedback, and holding team members responsible for their actions. (CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE! Accountability and brave communication is culture driven) The best way to develop a culture of accountability is with an exercise we employ in the military called the hot debrief. Upon completing a training evolution or running a call as soon as possible discuss the following from everyone in the team. What went well? What didn't go well? What would you do differently? Start with that and watch how quickly the culture starts to shift towards accountability and open communication.

5. Keep the team focused on shared goals and results by regularly communicating progress and celebrating achievements. (You need you first success to get your next! People love winning, firefighters love winning.) Thats why we all chose this competitive and high-stakes job. Outline the metrics for success, celebrate the team when they nail it and debrief when they don't. Celebrate your wins publicly and discuss your corrections privately. As leaders we sometimes get that backwards, but public praise has a big impact on a person's motivation and moral. Public criticism has the exact opposite affect and can lead to 1. Lack of trust.

The five dysfunctions of a team can impede the performance and effectiveness of the fire service. By understanding how these dysfunctions play out in the context of firefighting, leaders and team members can proactively address them. By fostering trust, embracing healthy conflict, promoting commitment, ensuring accountability, and prioritizing collective results, fire service teams can overcome these dysfunctions and become stronger, more cohesive crews. Ultimately, this leads to improved safety, efficiency, and the ability to fulfill the mission of protecting lives and property.

I know most of my written content is usually geared toward those who are trying to get hired however, I believe this post is truly universal and would be just as impactful if you are a probie, ten year guy, fire chief, or still working to get hired full time.

If you want to pick up a copy of the book it can be found on amazon for around $20. I found the book personally challenging and encouraging. It has facilitated a rethinking of my paradigms and approaches to the mundane which is having a net positive effect on myself, my family, my colleagues, and one day my dept.


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