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Three Ways Three Leaders are Rebuilding Morale

A leader in mistake prevention mode is also in growth prevention mode.

What happens after the previous regime leaves an organization in the ditch? A lot of new leaders face big odds when it comes to rebuilding morale. It doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how positive and uplifting a new leader is, there will always be scars left behind by the former leadership.

In our last blog, Three Teams, Three Leaders, and Three Ways They Killed Morale, we examined one law enforcement and two fire services agencies facing a similar morale crisis. The previous leaders had made difficult times for first responders worse. They all left behind agencies that were rebuilding and working to overcome the mistakes that created resentment and distrust, which the new leaders are now facing.

While I was working with these three agencies based in two different large metropolitan areas, I got to speak extensively with the chiefs, the command staffs, and the frontline leaders. As we discussed the issues of the past, we were focused on rebuilding the morale moving forward. Three similar themes emerged.

Three Ways to Rebuild Morale

Perhaps the most interesting thing I witnessed was when I asked if the frontlines wanted the new leaders to trust them and give them the benefit of the doubt. The resounding answer was “Yes”. But then I turned it around on them. “Don’t you think this new regime deserves the same from you?”

Turning around morale in each of these situations will not happen until both sides begin trusting one another. People don’t trust people who don’t trust them. Here are three themes they saw, which were critical to rebuilding morale.

Focus On the Big Picture

We define teamwork as “Selfless acts towards a common goal.” Each of these agencies needed a reset. One group focused on a new “North Star” to guide them. They wrote a one sentence common goal that they refer back to consistently to check that they are on course. That common goal is known by everyone in the department.

Another agency is focusing on their core values. The previous regime worked with the frontline leaders to define their values. Unfortunately, the old regime lost track of those values. Now, for the leaders left behind and the new upper level leaders, the values are their new common goal. They are having value discussions at every shift change at every level in the organization.

In the third agency, an interim chief and his remaining command staff are just beginning this process of determining their common goal.

Listening and Overcommunication

Coming off a number of years of the “us vs. them” mentality between the leadership teams and the frontlines, the new leaders needed to shut up and listen first. We discussed how healing often requires purging. As gross as it sounds, it is like popping a pimple or draining an infected wound. Healing can not happen without getting the infected materials out. The more the leaders listened without getting defensive, the more the frontlines opened up. The discussions became about how “We” move forward.

The next step is the leaders need to err on the side of too much communication. The more the front lines hear from the leaders, the more they will trust them. The leadership established routines of written electronic communication, video communication, and showing up and being seen at shift changes and regular training. When people began to feel like they had all the information, to include how and why decisions were made, they started to trust the process and the leaders.

A Focus on Growth

When an organization is ruled by a CYA (Cover Your A _ _ ) mentality, there is a trust issue. In our conversations, the leaders from the top to the bottom understood that overlooking mistakes could create issues that could cost someone their lives and erode public trust. They were all determined to change accountability from a synonym for punishment to something people would want to embrace.

Being corrected needs to be a positive experience. It needs to be an opportunity to grow and get better. Excellence is never achieved without learning from failure. If a leader is in mistake prevention mode, they are also in growth prevention mode. Being a learning organization that always focuses on growth means that even when things go well, there are lessons to be learned and places where things could get better.

These leaders decided to change the way they responded to failures and mistakes in order to focus on growth.

Response to Failure: “What did you/we learn from that?”

Response to Success: “Congratulations! What could you/we do even better next time? How can we do it faster? More efficiently? And still achieve the same level of success?”

At the end of our time together, the chiefs, the command staffs, and the frontline leaders all agreed on these three themes. They were once again unified leadership teams.

This agreement among the leaders is just the beginning of the journey for these agencies. Rebuilding morale will not happen overnight. But the first step was accomplished when the leadership united. Now it is up to these leaders to keep their hands on the wheel and steer the ship into port. Navigating the storm left behind by the previous regime will take leaders committed to Focusing on The Big Picture, Listening and Overcommunication, and Focusing on Growth.

Dig Deep Questions:

● What other successful strategies would you suggest for leaders in a similar position?

● Which of these themes would you prioritize?


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