While working on the book I am writing, I approached the subject of the different types of employees we find in our departments. With a high concentration of Type A personalities, as found in most fire departments, there is one employee in particular that merits some additional attention. I imagine that we all know someone like the person I am about to describe and each one of them, while similar, will have a broad spectrum of reasons for being that way. This type of person is known as a disenfranchised employee (DE). Many business leadership books list the DE as someone who used to care, perhaps was a star employee, and is now hurting the agency. In the business world this accounts for lack in productivity, poor work environments, and a slew of problems that eat at a company’s bottom line. In the fire service these people represent a growing number of “burned-out” employees that can put people in danger.
The old school way of thinking would dismiss these people, toss them to the side, with remarks pertaining to their inability to “make it” as a firefighter. While this seems like the easiest and fastest fix, it fails to understand the merits of the individual and account for the cost associated with their training and experience. In many cases, the brightest burning stars are the quickest to burnout. The first question that needs to be asked is “what caused them to change?” Identifying the personal or professional issues that caused the change is the first step to re-engaging the individual. Word of caution though, we are not mental health professionals and do not need to act like it. You do not have to dive into the personal life of your employees the analyze what went wrong. A simple understanding of their situation will suffice. Some common personal causes are: divorce, money problems, unhappy home-life, sick or dying family members, or lack of support at home. There is very little that we can do about these types of issues beyond acknowledging the problem and offering an employee assistance program. The more common issues that we can handle revolve around professional causes. Some of these include: lack of acknowledgment, not being validated, failure to progress, constantly being limited or micromanaged, lack of personal accountability within an organization, and having a perception of being mistreated. While many of these problems are employee specific, there is also something to be said for noticing trends. When multiple personnel show signs of being DE, there is often a bigger problem within the organization.
The question remains, “How do you re-engage someone who has become a DE?” On a personal level, they need to have a reason to be connected to the organization. No one, especially firefighters deal well with feeling like they are not needed. Employees much like fire need specific components to grow. I like to think of it as a spark, fuel, and air. Finding a role that utilizes their specific talents is the fastest way to create a spark. On its own, the spark is not enough to breathe new life into the employee. The next component is fuel. Just like a fire you cannot add too much or too little fuel if you expect growth. The fuel is a two part formula that includes continuing projects to provide opportunities for success and positive reinforcement with honest feedback. The final component is one that takes an experienced leader to understand. Air in its simplest form means that the leader needs to give the DE room to succeed without leaving them feeling abandoned again. Best case scenario, this career CPR will bring a DE back however, if wide-scale problems are present, individual action will not be enough.
On an organizational level, several DE’s are a sign of poor leadership/management practices. Drops in morale, lack of advancement opportunities, failure to hold people accountable, and micromanaging supervisors are generally the root of the problem. The effects are further compounded when the DE is a supervisor. Our attitude as a leader is highly infectious. Poor attitudes seem to be even more contagious than positive attitudes making it more difficult for positive attitudes to survive. The biggest question in this scenario is how do you as a company officer fix DE problems that may stem from higher levels of management? This is one of those “easier to explain than to do” scenarios.
You have to be persistently positive. Find ways to give DE’s spark, fuel, and air while pushing for management changes. Help to reestablish the organizational image. Throughout an organization’s progression, the failure to pass on core values and pride will lead to senior personnel becoming DE and prevent newer employees from ever truly engaging. Give credit where credit is due, stop “blanket policy” fixes, and treat people with respect. No one wants to be a number, they need to be accepted and validated as important members of the group. Failure to re-engage these employees will further support the perception that employees are numbers as they either leave or are let go and are replaced by newer, less experienced personnel. This scenario is one that can be more rewarding than a traditional conflict resolution since you are not only fixing a problem but bringing back someone who use to be a strong performer.
I want to close with one of my favorite quotes….. “If you are not apart of the solution, you are apart of the problem.”