Why EMS must praise people, not just teams

Praise often goes to the team as a whole, while individual members that make mistakes are often disciplined in public rather than in private

By Steven Knight, PhD

If you were to ask any supervisory level person if they should praise in public and discipline in private, I am confident you would get a response confirming the statement. 

But how often do we do that well? 

Good job, team

For such a simple concept to follow, it is difficult to do in fire and EMS work environments. For the most part, we are pretty adept at publicly praising good work – but for the team more so than the individual.

At times, the team orientation that serves us so well in the emergency services also inhibits praise of individual performance. Our reliance on each other and our humility towards the service creates an environment where the “team” routinely gets the credit for good works and successes while the individual is lost. 

However, there are times when individual praise is not only appropriate, but also necessary for illustrating best practice to the organization. There are many cultural, social, and behavioral influences shaping how we view individuality in our team environment – particularly when it comes to praise. 

Where's the team mentality when a member makes a mistake?

However, we find that the “team” often disappears when corrective action is required. Far too often we expect an individual to accept responsibility for “failures.” To compound the problem, we are not very good at disciplining in private.

When working in a team environment and a member makes a mistake on a call, most of the team members are completely aware of the misstep. When discipline is necessary, many times all of the “dirty laundry” and details are exchanged on the open market, regardless of the good faith efforts by the supervisor. 

Factors that contribute to this are the close working environment of the team, the culture of emergency services, the inability of the offended employee to keep it close to the vest, the organizational structure, and the labor group’s process for dealing with disciplinary cases.

When a mistake is made in the field, how long does it take for word to travel to other crews, stations, and shifts about the mistake or transgression?  If word travels fast, then that is an organizational level failure to honor the principle. However, when the transgression is grossly contrary to the values and principles of the organization, it is appropriate for the EMS or fire chief to deviate from this principle.  In these cases, a public exit has tremendous benefit in reinforcing the values and principles to the rest of the organization. 

All said, adherence to the tried and true principle of praising in public and disciplining in private is a shared responsibility by all levels of the organization.

About the Author

Dr. Steve Knight, a Fitch & Associates consultant, brings more than 25 years of fire and EMS experience to the firm. He served for nearly 17 years as assistant fire chief for the City of St. Petersburg, Fla. He has been a subject matter expert for both the National Fire Academy and the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a nonprofit corporation that serves as the governing body for the organizations that offer accreditation, education, and credentialing services to the first responder and fire service industries.

Knight has also served as team leader and assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and has held multiple faculty appointments in Fire Science and EMS. Prior to coming to Fitch, he served as senior manager of a consulting team within the Center for Public Safety Management.

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