Building Cohesive Companies

October 1, 2019

These next articles about Group Cohesion Theory have been adapted by Dave Wagner from the LAFDLA presentation of Michael Ellington – LAPD retired.

In 2003, a project team from the Missoula Technology and Development Center interviewed 24 experienced wildland firefighters. A single question was the focus of all the interviews: “How can firefighters avoid entrapment?” Based on the data, firefighter cohesion – how closely firefighters are tied together as a group – was a leading factor in reducing the chances of firefighters becoming entrapped.

While firefighter cohesion can help to avoid entrapments in the Wildland-Urban Interface or even in a DTLA high rise, cohesive units must be built far in advance of the deployment or long-ring.

“Leadership is about solving problems,
not passing them on to someone else”

Now that you know that cohesion is the glue that holds a group together, how do you get there? Bruce Tuckman, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, presented four vital stages in the development of a high-functioning team: forming, storming, norming and performing. This model helps leaders understand how their team members build relationships. In his LAFDLA presentation, Michael Ellington used examples from popular movies to illustrate each development stage.

The first stage of team development is forming, when everyone is being introduced to each other. Ellington communicates this concept with the scene from Ladder 49 where the rookie firefighter (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at the firehouse for his first shift. The forming stage of teamwork is all about first meetings and first impressions, and here, the crew wants to know how the rookie will react to their practical joke – how he will fit in with the rest of the team.

It is important for team members to develop relationships and understand what part each person plays. As a rookie firefighter starts to familiarize himself with the group, an understanding of his roles and responsibilities will begin to form. The roles of the other team members as well as the ground rules of conduct will also be fleshed out.

The second phase is storming, which can be the most challenging. Here’s where the pleasantries wear off and the individual work ethics and natural personalities emerge. Opinions are formed about the character of the other team members and some may voice these opinions if they think someone is attempting to dominate or is shirking their duties.

It’s easy to blame a “problem employee” for any conflict that develops here and resolve the problem by transferring the “offender.” This may be an effective short-term solution, but the root cause of the problem is being ignored. Leadership is about solving problems, not passing them on to someone else.

In the norming stage, people are gaining trust and building bonds. No one feels threatened and everyone is getting comfortable in their new roles. Good leaders recognize when the group is starting to gel and make sure that everyone has a job, understands the goals and feels part of the group.

In the Vietnam War flick We Were Soldiers, Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a born leader committed to his troops. Moore trains with his men as they prepare for one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. He tells them they must fight as a family: “Take care of each other . . . ‘cause when this starts . . . each other is all we’re going to have.” He leads his well-developed team by example and avoids being arbitrary in his decision making.

The fourth phase, performing, is what every crew should strive for. Maybe you’ve been there? Your rig pulls up at an incident and everyone jumps off and gets to work. Nobody needs to say much because they are already anticipating each other’s next move. You’ve all trained for this together and have been through similar situations before.

There is a high level of mutual trust among all members – productivity and morale are high. At this point, leaders can step back and let the team members be mostly self-directing. In fact, one of the dangers of this stage is over-management, which can lead to resentment or apathy among the team.

Only when you understand the roles of a leader at the different stages of team development can you experience the great satisfaction that goes along with developing a group into a truly high performing team.


• WHERE: The Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center
• COST: At the present time there is no cost to attend the LAFD Leadership Academy
• QUESTIONS: Jason Powell, Captain I, In-Service Training Section at (213) 893-9838 or

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