For many fire service organizations, there's a strong link between employees who take ownership, having a culture of accountability, and having trust in the workplace. It is critical to embed all three into the culture and values of an organization.
So, let's start with - what does it mean to take ownership at work? Taking ownership is about taking the initiative. We take ownership when we believe that taking action is not someone else's responsibility. You, as an individual, are accountable for the quality and timeliness of an outcome, even when you are working with others. You care about the outcome the same way you would care as fire chief of the organization. It doesn't mean you have an obligation to own the project. It doesn't mean you shouldn't involve others. It does mean you have a responsibility to the results of the organization and that you must act on items that impact those results. Taking ownership tells your subordinates and superiors – "You can trust me to do the right thing."
Second, being accountable is about being responsible for the result. Ownership is about the initiative; accountability is about follow-through. It's not just about the individual and their goals or commitments; it's about acknowledging that your actions affect other team members' abilities to accomplish their goals. When you say, "I've got this," accountability means you will deliver as promised and on time. If you can't deliver on time, or the results will not be as strong as you'd hoped, be honest and proactive with your communication. Being accountable is a significant factor in building trust. Being accountable tells others – "You can trust me to do what I say I'm going to do."
Third, is trust in your organization. Trust is the confidence that your teammates are working towards the same goals and objectives of the organization. That they are doing this with diligence and professionalism. Another way to understand trust in the workplace is to look at what it's not. Trust is the opposite of micromanaging. However, let's not confuse clarity with micromanaging. Good communication and a shared understanding of objectives are critical. Low trust translates to poor productivity. If you don't feel trusted, you're less likely to take the initiative because you anticipate criticism for any approach you may take. Having trust in the workplace tells your subordinates – "I believe in you. I believe you'll do the right thing, and I believe you'll do what you say you're going to do."
Ownership and accountability build trust. Trust encourages your employees to take ownership. Trust reinforces accountability because when you're trusted, you don't want to let your crew down.
Why does taking ownership matter? When employees take ownership of their work, they treat the organization they are working for as if it was their own or that they are the fire chief. They will make decisions thoughtfully, responsibly, and with more care. They will also be more driven, motivated, and have more initiative, seeking creative and innovative ways to improve and develop what they are doing, rather than going through the motions and fulfilling the minimum, and worse still, stagnating.
A critical factor in encouraging employees to take ownership is establishing expectations and defining what success looks like. This means defining the end goal. By focusing on the end goal, you place trust in your employees, and that trust empowers them. Trust is vital in getting employees to take ownership of what they do, so they care about the outcome. Firefighters who are given responsibility are more likely to take responsibility.
As much as possible, communicate why your firefighters', drivers,'' battalion chiefs,' assistant (division and/or deputy) chiefs' work is essential. This is about you as a leader providing the guiding vision. People are more engaged in something they think is valuable or important to the organization.
Understanding why something is necessary leads to your people doing a better job. Do not give your employees lip service and tell them this is what you want. Explain the big picture to them – this is where the city is moving towards; due to budget restraints, we can purchase X this year, etc. Do not lie to your employees as trust will go out the window immediately, and getting it back is more challenging than you imagine.
Micromanaging discourages ownership. It creates resentment, stifles initiative, and makes people feel like they are just a cog in someone else's wheel. Micromanaging creates a negative cycle where taking the initiative is punished because of how the task was completed, or the particulars of the result are criticized. It's hard for employees to take ownership over someone else's recipe/playbook when things are already too narrowly defined.
Ownership is a two-way street, so is communication. If you want employees to take ownership of their work, you must create an environment where they feel free to express themselves openly and honestly and share their ideas with you. Many leaders find this intimidating as they think they know what is best for the organization.
But ownership in the organization means taking the initiative to point out problems or opportunities. That type of initiative needs an outlet. So, there is an accountability to listen to ideas and act on them as a leader. Doing so builds trust. Firefighters are the ones working on the front lines and are likely to have valid input.
The most productive people and those most likely to succeed are proactive about finding and solving problems and comfortable acting with increasing autonomy and decreased oversight. In a world where issues are getting more complex, determined, and innovative problem-solving will flow from those who live as if help is not coming. Living with responsibility can make us stronger and more action-orientated individuals.
According to Pat Summit, "Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have."
Until next time, be safe!
Assistant Chief Jo-Ann Lorber, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, (JLorber@fortlauderdale.gov), Chief Lorber has been a member of the IAFC since 2005. She is the Chair for the EFO Section and a member of the Emergency Management Committee and Program Planning Committee and Council.