Doing nothing is not nothing: Learn the skills to stand up and speak out

Breaking a groupthink mentality requires two key skills – and support from leadership


When groups of people make bad decisions, there is often at least one person who could speak up and change the direction of what is happening.

This was true in the recent death of George Floyd, but it is also true in many other instances when people as a group go along with an action or decision that they would not agree to as individuals. This behavior has been called groupthink, and it can have devastating consequences.

How can you change a pattern of behavior where people stand by silently, even when they know that what they are witnessing is wrong? Organizational culture may support this silence, and cultural change is hard. It must come from leadership at all levels of the organization and it takes time.

Training in communication can help individuals to express themselves more clearly and concisely, being sure that the content they convey matches the intention they have. (Photo/Getty Images)
Training in communication can help individuals to express themselves more clearly and concisely, being sure that the content they convey matches the intention they have. (Photo/Getty Images)

For cultural shifts to be truly effective, people must put them into practice all the time, from the top leaders to the newest recruit. This kind of change requires skills that EMS providers and firefighters may not have at their disposal when they most need them.

What kinds of skills do people need to effectively stand up against the group when standing up is what is required? There are two main areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Communication
  2. Conflict management

Communication: Does the content match the intention?

If you tell EMS providers and firefighters that they need to attend training in communication, many of them will roll their eyes. As one firefighter complained to me at a training, “Why do we have to do training on communications? We should be training on things that can kill us out there.” Of course, in the real world, failures in communication kill firefighters as often as any other cause.

The truth is that most people are not naturally good at communicating, and technological changes in how people communicate with one another have only made this situation worse. Employers across all fields complain that younger people lack skills in face-to-face communication – not surprising when you grow up mostly communicating electronically. But it would be wrong to assume that communication issues are only a problem for the young. All ages and ranks need work in this area.

Most people are not naturally good listeners. For many, the definition of listening is “staying silent while waiting to speak.” But real listening involves not only understanding the content of the message, but also the context and intention. Many people hear and respond only to content, which can cause the real message to be missed.

Digital communication only feeds into this problem, as “conversations” online consist of one person making a statement and then others making statements in response. There is no context, no body language, tone of voice or facial expression. Many researchers feel that these nonverbal cues convey more of the intended message than the words spoken.

Fortunately, effective listening is a skill that can be taught, learned and practiced. In addition, training in communication can help individuals to express themselves more clearly and concisely, being sure that the content they convey matches the intention they have.

Conflict management: De-escalation training needed

Managing conflict, whether with coworkers or in difficult situations among the public, is another skill that is essential for all emergency responders. Emergency personnel are the first ones to arrive at scenes of great stress and danger – an essential part of their job is to defuse the conflict, mitigate the danger, and never make things worse.

But again, many people are not naturally good at doing this. They may come across too strong or they may be too passive. They may see something wrong but hesitate to speak up about it. They may feel real risk in contradicting someone in a position of higher rank or seniority.

This differential in power and how it affects communication was recognized years ago as a significant factor in avoidable plane crashes, and it led to a program known as crew resource management. This program, now standard training for all airline personnel, teaches individuals ways they can question decisions even in an authoritarian or hierarchical environment, when they see mistakes or bad decisions being made.

De-escalation training is something that most law enforcement officers are familiar with (even though it is still not required in most states.) Such training is much less common for firefighters and EMS personnel, even though they routinely respond to situations that would benefit from the skills included in such training.

Unfortunately, when times get tough financially, as they are for fire and EMS departments now, these types of training are often the first thing that are cut and deemed nonessential. This is shortsighted. If firefighters don’t have relationships of trust with their coworkers, and they don’t know how to frame their objections when they see something wrong, if they don’t know how to give effective feedback or are able to hear feedback from others, then in those critical moments, people will default to what seems like the position of least risk, and that is doing nothing.

Doing nothing is not nothing

It is important to always remember that doing nothing is not nothing. Choosing not to act in any given situation is a substantial choice, selected among many options, and in some cases, it is the best choice. But when immediate action is needed, especially when groups are going off the rails, then every member of the organization needs to have the skills and confidence to stand up.

Read next: Standing up or going along: How the fear of being shunned impacts our choices

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