Look Me in the Eye!

On the spectrum of justice, there is discipline. It comes from the word disciple, meaning student or follower. A disciple is used in a religious concept in which followers subscribe to a way of acting. In the fire service, we more often equate discipline to punishment. This is an unfortunate scenario because achieving discipline within an organization comes about from subscribing to a set of values.

An organization that is disciplined usually does not have a due process problem, but that does not mean that a situation cannot occur that tests the validity of both fairness and discipline. Unless there is a set framework for accountability in the organization, bad behavior can be tolerated and has a negative influence on the performance of the organization.

When I was a small child, my grandmother took me along when she went shopping one day. On our return home, I was in the backyard shooting off a cap gun. My grandmother asked me a single question, “Where did you get that cap gun?” I started off my defense by building the case that I found it. This was followed by her question, “Where?” I quickly told another falsehood and was asked another question. I could feel the pressure building up. Then she gave me a specific direction: “Look me in my eyes.” I did and folded like a circus tent at the end of a weekend.

I blurted out my confession that I stole the gun and the caps. Immediately I found myself in the car on the way back to the five-and-dime. She marched me right through the door up to the manager. I repeated my story to the man. I was required to pay him for the gun and the caps, which would be deducted from my normal 25¢ a week allowance; I was in debt for almost a year. I was required to apologize to him. I was never so humiliated in my life. I’ve never even thought of taking something that belonged to anyone else again.

My grandmother knew that as I looked her in the eye, I couldn’t lie.

How does all of this compare to the fire service? The comparison takes us into another topic: ethics. In an ethical environment, when you do something wrong you are the first one to know. Ethics are moral principles that govern behavior. They are ideals or standards of behavior that dictate a consciousness to every situation. The question is, if you do not have moral principles, how can you have discipline? If you have discipline without accountability, what is the sense of fairness within the organization?

There are fire departments that lack a fundamental orientation to discipline. This behavior is often manifested in an organization by what is called passive aggressive behavior. This is even more serious than outright aggressive behavior. Passive aggressiveness is more indirect and surfaces through subtly treating people inappropriately. Per Psychology Today, there are at least five common types of passive aggressive behavior, including the silent treatment, subtle insults, sullen behavior, stubbornness, and failure to finish required tasks. One of the challenges we face in performing professionally is to make sure that passive aggressive behavior in organizations is replaced by a code of conduct that sets levels of acceptability.

No matter how qualified you might be from a technical point of view, if you engage in inappropriate behavior, the organization is harmed. Adopting the Firefighters Bill of Rights establishes a framework for accountability, but establishing a positive work environment that incorporates values and principles is equally important. Recognizing and eliminating passive aggressive behavior are important steps in creating an organizational work environment that is reflective of high performance.

Current Issue

September 2016
Volume 11, Issue 9