Testing Your Leadership: How to Handle People Who Mishandle You

The mantle of leadership in the fire service can be heavy. We never know when tests will come our way. How we respond to them is key to success in any position! Regardless of your rank or responsibility, you’ll most definitely have to deal with “testers” as part of your position as a public safety leader.

The world has changed quickly in a short period of time, and the workplace has become very complex as a result. Many work remotely while others have to report to their respective places of work. Entitlement and rights seem to be a high priority for practically everyone.

You love hard work. This is one of the reasons you have been successful with your career. Unfortunately, the hardest work is not the forms you have to fill out or even the physical labor, but dealing with people. Constantly being tested by people will be your biggest challenge as a supervisor of firefighters.

Types of Tests

These are some of the important lessons I’ve learned in my years leading in the fire service, up to and including my position as a Los Angeles-area fire chief.

Listen up! One of the first things you can do to effectively deal with those who test you is to listen. Everyone wants to be heard while feeling acknowledged and appreciated. This can be tough as some don’t deserve either — especially those who mistreat you as a supervisor. Nonetheless, it’s important to listen to the people who report to you. This is a lost art.

Be a collection agency. When you see someone acting inappropriately, remember to take a moment to collect yourself before you respond to difficult behavior. When you do respond, take pains to communicate your needs and expectations clearly. Remain polite and stick to the facts. As much as you can, avoid bringing personal emotions into your interactions with those who report to you.

Authority wins. We live in a society in which practically everyone seems to want to defy authority. Any type of authority! Many times, fear of authority stems from the fear of being judged. Many of us, as children, are taught to respect and sometimes even fear authority figures. I believe this causes us to revert back to these old feelings of low esteem or self-worth when challenged by someone with authority over us. This can lead to feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection — to feeling judged and powerless. When one of your people acts defiant or questions your authority, consider that they might be reacting to deep-seated emotions or conditioning from the past. It’s important to not take this personally, but at the same time, you shouldn’t shirk your responsibilities as a leader just to spare their feelings.

Communications center. Communicate your expectations. Everyone has a different upbringing and background, which means everyone has different standards regarding what’s appropriate and what’s not. Failure to communicate what’s expected of employees clearly and consistently can result in misunderstandings that eventually cause relationships to deteriorate.

Inflammatory behavior. When someone under your command exhibits behaviors like or anger or resentment, see if you can learn what is driving their reaction. Are they stressed outside or inside of work? Are they feeling supported? There could be other things that you don’t see, such as family challenges or conflict in their personal life, that are causing some of these behaviors. Don’t assume they don’t respect you — it just may be stress manifesting itself in ways that feel like disrespect.

No specials today! I’m special! You’re special! Everyone is special! One way to rein in an entitled employee is to try to make the entitled person feel the same as the other employees. It may seem counterintuitive, but helping an entitled person feel like one among equals can often lessen their sense of entitlement. If possible, assign them roles or tasks that play to their strengths. In the end, though, treat everyone equally. No specials or favoritism.

The underminer. In any workplace, there’s almost always a ringleader who tries to turn others against you. Unfortunately, many insecure people buy into the ringleader’s tactics. The best thing to do is stay calm and professional, even if you’re feeling angry or frustrated. This will demonstrate to the ringleader that you’re not a threat and that you don’t feel threatened. Once you are calm and collected, you can start thinking of a plan. If you become irritated, agitated or rattled, you may end up making bad decisions you’ll likely regret. The ringleader will also see you as weak and easy to manipulate, and will continue to attack. So, keep calm and stay in control.

The sniper. The office sniper is a person who “attacks from the weeds.” Snipers stay in hiding, always criticizing the supervisor, but rarely face to face. If you have an employee sniper taking shots at you, stop — even in the middle of a sentence or word — and expose the sniper’s behavior by questioning their intent. First, ask: “When you say that, what is your objective? What are you really trying to say?” The second question may be: “What does that have to do with this?” Generally, smoking the sniper out with these questions will stop the firing. If not, stop the meeting or situation and call them in your office and advise them the behavior is unacceptable. Finish the conversation by suggesting an alternative behavior for the future.

When All Else Fails

As you can see, there are many types of people who will test you as a manager. You’re busy enough with all your duties without having to deal with the “testers,” but it’s important to never allow your emotions to get in your way of your responsibilities as a manager. When someone is testing your leadership, don’t feel you always have to catch the “test ball” and take things personally. In most cases, a tester’s behavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Even during the most difficult of times, leaders must maintain a positive mental attitude. Stay positive. Respond decisively. Managers who maintain their composure will never show any signs of doubt.  Speak with conviction, confidence and authority.

When all else fails, take a nap — or put another way, sleep on it. I have found (and I’m still learning) it’s often better to sleep on things rather than reacting with frustration to troublesome behavior. In many instances, I reacted with words and actions I wish I could take back. When emotions, stress and blood pressure are running high, it’s easy to do or say things you don’t mean or that will not be productive. I think we’ve all written emails or reacted strongly on issues and later regretted it.

We’re all human and we have emotions that can get the best of us. While you can’t always control what happens when others are testing your leadership, by pausing and taking a moment, your greatest test just may become your easiest one!

Sam DiGiovanna

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 40-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 also is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol and the Cordico wellness solution.

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