Not long after I joined the fire department, I met an older firefighter who introduced himself this way: “Hi, I’m Stan. I’m kind of considered dead wood around here.” (That’s not his actual name, of course.)
He wasn’t kidding. That was exactly what people thought of him, not in a malicious way but just as an acceptance of fact. Stan had made a couple high-profile mistakes early in his career and had some bad luck, and this resulted in a reputation of being a nice guy, but basically useless on the job. Over the years, he had accepted this assessment for himself as well.
The term “quiet quitting” is relatively new to popular culture, but it is not a new phenomenon. Stan was an example of it 40 years ago. He was a decent, basically capable person who had been allowed to become, as he said, “dead wood.”
Quiet quitting is defined as the choice to no longer go above and beyond for your job, but rather do exactly what that job description requires – only that. For many younger workers, it’s essentially a rejection of the “hustle culture” where employees are expected to work long hours and take on an inordinate amount of work to have any chance at moving up the corporate ladder. In the fire service, it’s likely more complex than that.
The act of quiet quitting is an individual choice, but one that affects everyone in an organization, especially one like the fire service where extraordinary effort is often required.
Reverse the trend
What can be done to both recognize and reverse this process? Company officers have a specific obligation.
1. Pay attention: No one becomes a firefighter with the attitude that they are going to do as little as possible. The job is too competitive and requires too much commitment at the start for anyone to begin this way. But people can quickly get sidelined for several reasons. In Stan’s case, it was a combination of a few bad acts, some bad luck and an increasing attitude that what he did really didn’t matter very much. This transition happens over time, and company officers are the ones who are most likely to notice it before it goes too far.
2. Give every person they work with a clean slate: Of course a company officer will be aware of a person’s reputation, but that doesn’t mean they must act on those preconceptions. Officers can establish clear and attainable expectations for all members of the crew, recognize when those expectations have been met, and provide remedial assistance when they are not.
I ended up working with Stan for about a year after we met. We were assigned to an officer who had a reputation of being highly skilled, demanding and a little scary. But this officer was also fair, and maybe because he had no choice in the matter, he accepted me and Stan as full, valued members of his crew.
Stan was forced in this situation into being a substitute driver – the last assignment he would have chosen due to past bad experience. Our officer coached Stan and watched him closely but did not micromanage. He gave him leeway to make decisions in the role he had, and he included him and me in all aspects of station life and response.
What happened as a result of this approach? Stan thrived. He did not become the best engineer on the job. He never would be. But he became competent and reliable in the position and an enthusiastic member of the crew. I was fairly new on the job, and he was overcoming obstacles. We helped each other. And for a brief period of about six months while we were all assigned together, we had a crew at a busy station that was functional, motivated and happy.
This was not an accident. It was a function of leadership. And maybe my officer didn’t know it at the time, but he had increased Stan’s engagement and reversed his “quiet quitting” approach by attending to the three aspects of intrinsic motivation that have been identified through psychological research: competence, autonomy and affiliation.
Our officer made a concerted effort to increase Stan’s skill levels (competence) through training and clear expectations. But he also respected Stan’s autonomy in the position he held and did not hover or micromanage. And he included him as a full, valued member of the crew from Day 1 (affiliation). These actions on the officer’s part increased Stan’s intrinsic motivation to the job.
High levels of intrinsic motivation are the antidote to quiet quitting, but it is not enough to just tell people that they should be more motivated or care more about the job. Disengagement is a gradual process that can result in cynicism, atrophied skills and indifference. I don’t know of any fire departments that have so many members that they can afford to lose people in this way. It takes leadership to notice and reverse these trends.