Why EMS leaders should embrace healthy conflict

Healthy conflict challenges the status quo, forces teams to consider different points of view, and results in a high-accountability environment


By Steve Knight, Ph.D.

In EMS and the fire service, teamwork is the essence of much of our successes. Whether deployed on firefighting apparatus with multiple personnel or a single EMS unit with two personnel, nearly all work is accomplished through the deployment of teams.

However, there are times when our team's social and cultural norming processes may serve to diminish innovation and cause us to resist change — and that can happen when we avoid conflict.

Conflict can be defined as disagreement, opposition, and variance. For many of us, our natural tendency is to avoid conflict, especially in the workplace. But since conflict is a natural occurrence in relationships, our efforts to eliminate conflict come at the cost of candor, honesty — and accountability.

Artificial harmony

If not careful, our desire for harmony can be more appropriately identified as a lack of trust in a team where dissenting voices can be heard without reprisal. If you want to test whether your team has a trust problem, observe the degree of consensus in a formal meeting, and then compare that to the informal meetings afterward at the water cooler, at lunch or behind closed doors.

Management guru Patrick Lencioni identifies this phenomenon as artificial harmony. Over time, low candor and conflict-avoidance behaviors will result in team mediocrity.

In emergency services, accountability is most often formally viewed as a function of discipline; that is, whether or not the team members are following a bureaucratic set of policies and procedures. One of the first and most glaring problems with this approach is that few policies and procedures have any correlation to team performance of the mission.

Informally, accountability is more rightly viewed as discipline for the team members for any actions or beliefs outside of the group culture, such as shunning, distancing, or marginalizing the member that is outside of the cultural norm.

However, in most instances, and I believe the EMS mission handles this better than the fire mission, accountability has little to do with performance of the mission. In a low-accountability environment, mediocrity will reign and eventually employees will begin to serve themselves, rather than the team or the mission, because they perceive their performance as having little value.

Why conflict is healthy

A certain degree of conflict is necessary for the health, success, and continued pursuit of excellence in an organization. Hefitz and Linksy identify it as disequilibrium. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, calls it candor. John Kotter, an international authority on leadership and change, refers to it as a sense of urgency.

This healthy conflict is good for teams and organizations because it challenges the status quo, forces the teams to consider different points of view, and ultimately results in a high accountability environment.

Leaders must ensure that a team environment is created where all members are provided an opportunity to share their thoughts and beliefs in a safe and respected environment. Leaders must learn how to allow the conflict to rise and create some disharmony in the group, but know when to move toward resolution.

Far too often, our "fix it" team mentality does not tolerate conflict so we address it immediately rather than letting the process work itself out. At times, leaders must be the ones to generate some conflict if it is needed to get dissenting opinions — and to show that there is no payback for not always agreeing with the boss.

Of course, ground rules must be established for what healthy conflict looks like, and respect and professionalism must be upheld. Healthy conflict furthers the depth and breadth of innovation and change, but ultimately, a decision must be made.

Consensus in the decision is not the ultimate goal of the process (other than those rare occasions where everyone truly agrees). Paramount to success and accountability is the understanding and belief that the team's ultimate decision is a result of open, honest and candid dialogue.

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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