Building a Better Team

April 30, 2018

The days of hanging out in the kitchen and enjoying a meal together have been replaced with members counting out of the mess and opting to prepare their own meals. Face-to-face communication has been replaced with text messaging and emailing, even though members are only a room or two away. Survey after survey have shown that employee engagement at work is at an all-time low. One way to help improve this is to foster friendships – the good old-fashioned friendships created when we hang-out, joke, and have fun with co-workers. It’s what we used to call camaraderie.

Captain II Tom Kitahata at FS 69 has his own team building methods. He explains that, “Many of you that know me are aware that I love to drill with the crew. This is some of the best camaraderie that we do, if done right. We have to get away from trying to make someone look stupid or trying to single one member out. We need to learn together and teach each other new things. This time together builds our self confidence and trust amongst each other.”

Research has also shown that workers are happier in their jobs when they develop friendships with co-workers. How many times have you heard the saying, “It’s not where you work, but rather who you work with?” Many firefighters have spent years in stations where the call load was at the highest in the City. Why? The most common answer was, “I like the people I work with.” Employees report that when they have friends at work, their job is more enjoyable, worthwhile, and satisfying.

Camaraderie is more than just having fun, though. It is also about creating a common sense of purpose and the mentality that we are in it together. This ideology can be, and should be, adopted at the station level too. According to Chief Stephen Ruda, “The key to ‘team building’ is for the leader to be a good listener. It is important that those under your command truly know that you listen to them and take their recommendations seriously. Encourage them to provide input – a ‘heard crew’ is a crew that feels that they have contributed to the better good. If they feel that they haven’t been heard then they become a ‘herd’ and will wander away with a lost feeling. “After all, as a leader, it isn’t about you but those whom you lead that truly matters,” said Ruda.

These concepts can be applied during daily line-ups, training that encourages friendly competition instead of berating, eating lunch or dinner out in the community, and an occasional family get-together off duty. By meeting the family of co-workers, one can get a better sense of who they really are, and where they came from.

Friends at work also form a strong social support network for each other, both personally and professionally. Whether consoling each other during a time of grief, giving friendly advice when appropriate, or providing assistance for personal situations, comradeship at work can boost an employee’s spirit and provide needed support.

A fine example of camaraderie building comes from Chief Mark Curry. He writes, “As a 4th generation firefighter, I can literally say that I grew up in LA City firehouses. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting my father, Roger Curry, at Fire Station 93 where he spent the bulk of his career. My dad was the “PC” at 93’s. I remember the amount of work he put into ensuring that his meals not only tasted great but that there was always plenty for everyone. He was legendary for his crème puffs – one per person, plus one additional for throwing. It wasn’t until I joined the LAFD in 1989 that I realized what he was actually doing–creating camaraderie. My dad recognized that the kitchen is the heart of the fire station and it’s the place where we truly become family.

The Hope for Firefighters event is an extension of our firehouse kitchens and an opportunity to share with the public not only our delicious food but our spirit of camaraderie. This great event demonstrates our Department’s creativity, sense of humor, and, of course, our cooking ability. The years that I’ve been able to participate in ‘Hope’ have proven to be terrific bonding experiences for our crew. Serving upwards of 500 people is no easy task, and it takes a tremendous amount of coordination and teamwork (just like on the fire ground!) Teams that participate come away with a sense of accomplishment, and at the end of the day they are closer as a crew.”

Kitahata also likes to get the crew from 69’s together for off-duty activities. The entire shift and their spouses celebrated the holidays together at the LAFRA party at the DTLA Marriott last year. “I’ve always felt that a strong bonding among the crew around the firehouse, as well as off-duty, leads to strong bonds and cohesiveness on the fire ground,” says Kitahata.

People in organizations need to work together. It is also important to say that the days of ‘them’ or ‘us’ need to go. Nothing can be accomplished divided – hasn’t our current government environment shown us that? Firefighters, captains, and chiefs all need to work together to foster collaboration, trust, personal relationships, fun, and support. In an increasingly technological and virtual environment, the challenges for all of us will be to cultivate these personal relationships.

Fostering camaraderie requires a proactive effort. The practice is simple: expand communication, create or renew friendships, and build team work. In turn, the goal of camaraderie is achieved, and a sense of teamwork restored.

By John Hicks

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