By Dana Skelly and Todd Gregory
A trainee walks into a bar…
Right. How about this: A trainee comes your way, not really impressing you, but whatever. Close to finishing their book, you cut them loose to run the mission. You thumb through their task book. You see that this is their sixth assignment and the only way the last two evaluators have gotten away with checking “not all tasks were evaluated…” is by breaking out bullets—like you aren’t supposed to do.
Sucks to be in that position. How does this even happen?
It happens because we let it happen.
And really, it sucks for both of you.
We see helping each other in this way as being confrontational or negative. So we avoid giving tough feedback and constructive alternatives—and we end up passing the buck.
The Easy Wrong
Why is this story something you can relate to? Because it happens more frequently than it should. We all have strengths and weaknesses, some of them known and some of them are in our blind spot.
Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help us realize our potential. But for some reason, we see helping each other in this way as being confrontational or negative. So we avoid giving tough feedback and constructive alternatives—and we end up passing the buck. The easy wrong.
The other side of the story is being able to receive that feedback. It can be hard to hear and easy to dismiss. This is especially true when the majority of folks won’t even offer it.
Oftentimes, criticism gets dismissed because people are uncomfortable telling someone something that they don’t want to hear. So nobody steps up to substantiate the original criticism. It makes it simple to conclude that the originator of the criticism is the only one who has concerns and therefore there is no concern.
Not being able to take and receive critical feedback is a fundamental flaw in our ability to realize our potential as a learning culture. If we do not add this practice to our training and day-to-day behaviors, we will always be limited. These skills really come down to communities of trust. Isn’t this trust the cornerstone of everything we do?
Making Our Teams Stronger
Let’s take this story up top to the next level with a “real life” anecdote.
Fun Conversation? No. Positive Experience? Yes.
“During a performance discussion, I had an employee indicate they wanted to pursue a DIVS and ICT3 qualification. I had reservations about some of their operational aptitude.
The employee was a qualified ICT4 and worked in that capacity satisfactorily but needed to improve on some aspects of that position before moving up.
I just ‘laid it out there’ and was completely honest with them. I also pointed out some areas in which the individual was very strong. I suggested that they perhaps pursue Logistics or Prevention positions due to those strengths.
Was it a fun conversation? No. Was it necessary? Yes.
The employee ended the discussion by thanking me for my honesty and started working on the areas that I had identified. It ended up being a positive experience.”
As this experience shared by Todd (above) illustrates, such honest feedback discussions may not be easy, but they’re absolutely the right thing to do. And in the end, they make each of us better and our teams stronger.
Let’s take our discussion down another path.
In our culture, we value strength—both physical and personal. While we understand fear as a way to inform our respect for the dangerous environment we work in, we do not value those who succumb to it.
Many of these things we value parallel stoic philosophy. If you are familiar with “stoicism,” whether you learned it from Henry Rollins or Marcus Aurelius or someone in between, you know that at the surface it is a way of life that relies more heavily on logic than emotion. It is an old and practical philosophy that dates back to the ancient Greeks.
This quote from the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is probably nothing you haven’t heard or thought about before:
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”
We often translate this concept into our own terms in part as choosing the “difficult right” over the “easy wrong.” In most of our work-lives, we place a high value on doing this and doing a good job. We believe that we should take pride in our core values and how we approach them.
We also know that we should never allow ourselves to become complacent and we must always strive for improvement. We cannot do this alone, and we don’t. But what we don’t do enough of is help each other by sharing the difficult topics. It is not confrontational or negative behavior to make yourself and your co-workers better parts of the workforce. In fact, it is practical. You should therefore be seeking to receive this constructive feedback as much as we need you to offer it.
How Do You Decide if a Person is Ready?
So let’s bring this back to the initial scenario. How do you decide if a person is ready to be signed off?
If I Answer “No”—I Make Sure That We Discuss It
“The first time I had a trainee after I became a squad boss, I thought about this quite a bit (if this person was ready to have their task book signed).
I really struggled with it.
I didn’t think the candidate was ready. So, initially, I examined why I thought that.
I didn’t click with this person—was I basing too much on that? As I reflected, I realized that ultimately I would not feel well looked after if this person was my squad boss.
That became my metric for how I evaluate people and I use it to this day: Would I work for them in that position?
If I answer Yes: Then I sign them off. If I answer No: Then I think about why that is and make sure we discuss it.”
Your Challenge: Take that Step to Become that Coach
That last bit—Dana discussing with the candidate why their task book wasn’t signed—is the piece that we aren’t required to do. In fact, as a whole we don’t do a great job of teaching ourselves how to best utilize the PTB system.
It’s the core of assessing ourselves in the field, and yet we have no part of our fire education curricula that walks us through good and bad examples of coaching. Unfortunately, this process, therefore, can be hit and miss.
So we are now challenging you to become that coach. To take that step. Seek the difficult feedback and reflect on it. And by example show others how important it is to be able to give and receive it.
The classes will catch up, eventually.
But the change starts with you.
Some good references on Stoicism