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The Elephants—Better Known as the Undiscussables

I recently read an organizational improvement book because the name intrigued me a bit. The name was The Thin Book of Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: where is she going with this? Just think about it for a minute or two. Is there an issue or problem in your department that keeps rearing its ugly head but nobody wants to discuss it or attempt to fix it?

For all intents and purposes, the unnamed elephants are issues or problems that everyone in the organization knows exist but is afraid to discuss (unless on the tailboard of an apparatus with trusted coworkers, but not to the fire chief or other chiefs).

The elephants are topics that are undiscussable in order to “avoid surprise, embarrassment or threat.” Usually, embarrassment and threat are the biggest reasons behind most elephants.

While doing a hot yoga class, I came up with a couple of local elephants in the fire service that have been randomly observed for this article.

First elephant observed is our ever-so-challenging safety-based culture.

Are we as fire service professionals consistent in enforcing our safety policies? Do we ensure that each and every person riding in an apparatus is wearing their seatbelt? Do we approach every scene with the safety-first attitude or do we pick and choose, forget or ignore those things that we were taught in the academy or in training?

What if each fire-rescue department performed a risk/benefit analysis on every emergency scene, performed skills safely or followed national standards such as OSHA, NIOSH and NIST recommendations? A lot of what ifs just on safety-based culture. Hmm…

The second elephant observation is the health and well-being of our employees.

Are we encouraging our employees to have physicals each and every year? Does your department budget for employee physicals, or is that budgeted line-item just for special operations personnel?

Do we ensure that employees over the age of 40 have stress tests at least every five years? Do we have a health/wellness program for our employees?

Do we care about our employees’ nutrition while at the stations? Better yet, are we as fire service professionals cognizant of our employees coming to work or driving home physically and emotionally exhausted or—more alarming—sleep-deprived after working a busy 24-hour shift or possibly longer if mandatory overtime much less a natural disaster has struck the area?

Of course, our latest concern of behavioral health is firefighter suicides.

So, how do you name the elephants? Naming elephants is a three-part process.

First, identify what is undiscussable; that is, name the elephant.

Second, surface the underlying assumptions people have about the elephants, or the situation. This creates the opportunity to learn all the ways people see the reality of the situation (multiple realities).

Third, learn how to have constructive dialogue involving an unobstructed conduit of information to and from upper management, middle management and the rank-and-file “boots-on-the-ground.”

This process is not linear and can happen in any order.

Dialogue is often the time when the elephant is named or assumptions are surfaced. The key is to include constructive dialogue somewhere in the process because dialogue techniques can dissipate the fear created by power and status differentials.

Just remember, power and status differentials always impact a person’s willingness to openly explore different point of views. Ensure that every voice is heard and collectively name the elephant and work to change or remove it.

I will admit that naming an elephant will be uncomfortable and will upset the status quo, but organizational change begins with each and every one of us.

If you don’t have the authority to make the decisions, you certainly have the authority to challenge the decisions.

Being a member of an organization such as the fire service, you have the responsibility to be mindful, to push back, to a certain extent (remember chain-of-command and union contracts), to name elephants and to add your sense to the group. If you’re a leader, you also have the responsibility to create a culture in which all employees can contribute fully to the organization.

I just gave a quick synopsis on this subject and a brief overview on how to name an elephant that may be in your department. My suggestion is to obtain a copy of the book, read it and see what elephants you can name.

Until next time, stay safe!

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