How difficult people impact the organization
Chief Jerry Streich identifies the impact problem employees have on the organization and on collective department stress
Jerry L. Streich, a Minneapolis-area fire chief/emergency manager, took on an issue that every department deals with at FDIC 2023 – bad behavior and difficult people.
Streich shared his personal experience with personnel issues, and strategies for dealing with the different generations and personality types you’ll encounter in the emergency services.
Memorable quotes on hostile work environments
Streich shared his experiences in managing various personality types and problematic members. Here are some memorable quotes:
- “Bad people make good people leave – it’s so true.”
- “There’s nothing worse than two people screaming at each other and thinking there’s going to be a resolution, because there won’t be.”
- “If you have a reality TV show going on in your department, everyone knows about it.”
- “We only get a little bit of time. You’re either going to leave a legacy or a tragedy.”
Top takeaways on dealing with problem employees
Streich shared conflict resolution techniques to deal with the different challenging personalities in the fire and EMS station.
Following are the top takeaways from Streich’s workshop.
1. Identify difficult employees
Streich noted some characteristics of difficult people are easier to identify than others, but some signs include:
- Yelling, screaming, a raised voice
- Anger if not getting their way
- Micromanaging (my way or the highway)
- Gossiping, complaining, insisting on always being right
These people exhibit damaging behavior, including:
2. Understand the costs of workplace drama
There are tangible costs of having difficult employees, but others are less obvious. They range from:
- Absenteeism and loss of productivity: People do not want to be around a difficult person and they will call out to avoid the behavior
- Increased costs: Bad behavior leads to incidents and injury, resulting in workers’ compensation and disability insurance expenses
- Turnover, recruitment, interviewing hiring challenges: Word gets out, Streich stressed. If you have workplace drama, that word gets around to mutual aid partners and prospective candidates who will not want to work for your organization.
- Organizational reputation: “It takes years to build a reputation and a millisecond to ruin it,” Streich said. An organization with a reputation for drama will have discipline problems, a lack of participation, complaining, gossip and a lack of trust.
- Health: Dealing with negativity, complaints, conflict and bad behavior is stressful for everyone and increases the impacts of fatigue and wellness
The chief is not immune from the stress and health impacts, Streich stressed. “Managing [difficult] people can cause post-traumatic stress. If you think of them when you should be sleeping, you might be in the presence of a bully or a threat.”
One tip he offered to deal with pushback is to predict how different members will react to a new initiative or change before announcing it. Write it on a piece of paper, he suggested – not to poke fun at the anticipated complaints, but to prevent internalizing that criticism when it inevitably comes.
3. Understand generational differences
We’ve heard about generational stereotypes and perceptions, but we’re facing an unprecedented diversity in our emergency services workforces including more generations than ever. Streich noted it can be helpful to look at where members are coming from, in their backgrounds and experiences, to understand their motivation and communication preferences.
Every one of us grew up in an environment that is completely different, he pointed out. “We have to be more open to the generational differences we have to better communicate.’
The key? Listening. We have to talk to members, Streich said. “Here’s what I’ve learned; we live on the same planet, but I know you have experiences I haven’t; I’d like to hear about them.”
Get to know your people, he advised. Take out some index cards and have members fill out things you don’t know about them. Try to guess who is who. Streich encouraged attendees to have “brave talk.” “We don’t talk about the things we should, he said. “There’s a lot of surface understanding of who we are.” Better understanding can provide a foundation for building culture, mission and vision.
4. How to mitigate a hostile member
Streich shared universal strategies for dealing with a hostile member:
- Remain calm
- Acknowledge their feelings
- Listen to their complaints
- Explain your feelings in a non-blaming way
- Lower your voice
- Use the word “I” – “I would like to work it out”
- Protect yourself. If warranted, call the police.
He also provided tips for dealing with specific personality types like the:
- Chronic complainer. Listen and ask clarifying questions, but watch your body language. Don’t agree with the complaints, verbally or by nodding your head. Don’t counterattack or get defensive, but don’t apologize. Get the facts with a problem-solving attitude.
- Know-it-all. Streich noted there are actual people in the emergency services who have seen and experienced so much, they are actual resources for almost any scenario. Then there are the people with an unwarranted opinion on everything. Identify which type your constant interjector is by asking them, “Where did you get your information from?”
- Keyboard commander. Their behind-the-scenes comments can cause morale problems and stir up group think. Respond quickly and call them out.
- Cranky person: Determine what’s really going on, Streich advised. Stay positive. Do not take their crankiness personally, but demand respect and ensure the behavior stops.
Create a culture of responsibility
Ultimately, weeding out bad behavior is everyone’s responsibility and it needs to be called out. “If you seriously think the chief has total control of everything, I’m sorry to say you’re wrong,” Streich said. “We’re not going to tolerate bad behavior. Who’s not going to tolerate it? We are not. That needs to be collective.”
Focus on building your mission, vision and core values, with a focus on professionalism, service, excellence, dedication, integrity, respect and striving to be better.
“If someone doesn’t get it, we need to build them a bridge,” he said. “They’re part of our team. We’re a big family and we stick together.”
- How to really address problem emergency responders
- 5 dysfunctions that turn teams into mere groups
- Want to nip bullying in the bud? Start at the top
- Achieving positive discipline without destroying trust
This article was originally posted April 26, 2023. It has been updated.