Shaking Things Up as a Fire Service Leader

by | August 14, 2023

It’s been said that if you put 100 black ants and 100 red ants into a jar and leave them alone, nothing will happen. But if you shake the jar violently with the ants inside, they will immediately start attacking each other.

According to some experts, this is because the red ants see the black ants as the enemy, and the black ants see the red ants as the enemy. The real enemy, of course, is you — the person who threw them together and then shook the jar.

While there is some disagreement about whether any of this is true*, it’s a great metaphor for how things are going in our society, and also for managing a department as a fire service leader. You don’t have to look far to see “a whole lot of shaking going on” in our cities, across our nation and all over the world. Political divisions, human rights abuses, abridgement of speech, war, crime, the cost of living, and other hot-button topics are pitting different factions against each other. There is plenty of shaking going on.

Unfortunately, it’s working. As a country, and as a culture, we are sharply divided. So many in this nation and globally are at odds with one another. Either they are shaking their heads with disappointment and disapproval or shaking inside as they contemplate a questionable future.

A Good Shaking

When I was a young firefighter, the chief would occasionally make station and shift changes to “shake things up.” I didn’t understand it then, but now I do. When people get too comfortable with how things are, this can create institutional inertia. Change can be a good thing.

We certainly want our organizations to run like clockwork when it comes to policies and procedures. However, as a fire service leader, you don’t necessarily want your employees to function in the same way, all the time. When people do the same thing in the same environment day after day, year after year, it’s not uncommon for a level of boredom or even dissatisfaction to set in.

In the words of three-time world heavyweight champion boxer Lennox Lewis, “Sometimes success needs interruption to regain focus and shake off complacency.” Even if your agency is currently successful, there’s no reason to think you can’t increase that success by shaking things up in a positive, productive way.

A Bad Shaking

Conversely, there are some negative outcomes that can result from shaking things up for the simple pleasure of seeing things in disarray. It’s one thing to disrupt an organization for productive reasons — to challenge your employees and, in the words of author Nina Bawden, “make them look at things in a different way.” It’s an entirely different thing to cause organizational disruption for the wrong reasons. People who do this are sometimes called “pot stirrers.”

These are the leaders who pit coworker against coworker, labor against management and friend against friend by using gossip, rumor, and innuendo. Pot-stirrers can usually be found at the center of any organizational drama, with popcorn in hand waiting for the fireworks.

These shakers love injustice. They live to find real or imagined issues within the department, or even with you. They constantly question decisions and, like dogs with a bone, won’t let go of something once they’ve got their teeth in it. To make matters worse, they just don’t seem to be happy until everyone at work is talking about whatever issue is currently bothering them.

How to Deal with a Shaker?

Conflict is inevitable in any line of work, and that goes double in first responder professions. According to an article by Lexipol’s Rex Scism, these are the most common sources of conflict in public safety agencies:

  • A lack of clarity with performance expectations or guidelines
  • Poor communication
  • Personality differences
  • Competing or conflicting interests
  • Organizational change
  • Differences in culture and assumptions
  • Lack of sensitivity to demographic or socioeconomic factors
  • Differences in objectives
  • Incompetence (either perceived or actual)

All of that is baked into the cake, but the conflict becomes an even bigger problem when a pot-stirrer begins agitating about hobby-horse issues. So as a fire service leader, how do you respond when someone in your organization “shakes the jar”?

First, stay calm no matter how bothered or upset you are. Try not to react in a visible or vocal way. When you refrain from reacting, the drama will generally stop. Anything you say “can and will be held against you,” so share very little with the shaker — especially personal information and your irritation with the situation! Change the channel of their conversation to something positive.

You can use the strategy of redirection to avoid blaming and instead gently correct employee behavior. According to one expert, “When done correctly, redirecting feedback helps your employees, partner, peers, etc., understand where and how they can improve, and what impact that change could have. Employees will likely work on what they need to improve because they will want to do a great job for you.” This knocks the “shake” right out of them!

Second, maintain a no gossip zone. Pot-stirrers can’t stir the pot unless someone is around for them to agitate. Their goal is to draw others in by gossiping and telling stories about those they dislike. Don’t stand around listening to their stories, and don’t provide them with a platform to dispel their negativity. Coach all your employees to avoid gossiping about others, and lead by example.

In conclusion, it’s important to know we can’t stop a lot of what’s shaking, however, before we fight each other, we should ask first, “Who shook the jar – and why?”

*The story of red and black ants in a jar is one that has often made the rounds on social media. It’s often attributed to naturalist David Attenborough, though this has been debunked. The source of the story may be the novel “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. Others have said that many species of ants, if put together in a jar, will attack each other regardless of whether they are shaken or not.

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution.

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