Could over-trusting your personnel drive efficiency?

Fire and Rescue Services across the United Kingdom manage different internal policies with the common goal of achieving clarity, measurement and accountability to impulse efficiency and a more consistent and controlled work environment.

However, in the quest of maintaining control over every aspect of the organisation –from procurement to resource availability to payroll management– sometimes services might tend to overcomplicate processes.

Yves Morieux, director of The Boston Consulting Group's Institute for Organization, explainedin his 2015 TED Talk “How Too Many Rules at Work Keep You from Getting Things Done” in London that “we pay more attention to knowing who to blame in case we fail, than to creating the conditions to succeed.”

This is especially true in regards to the extent services trust their employees. There are many interesting examples found in the Fire and Rescue Service that differ one from another regarding this topic. Just to name a few:

  • Station managers can fill in and approve activity or incident reports, affecting payments. Even if they are an attendee on the same report. However, an important point of attention is to make sure all local managers apply the same (pay) standards, because a different interpretation of the rules may cause discrepancies and inconsistencies.
  • When the services put a maximum limit to the amount that an employee can claim e.g to the amount of clothing, every firefighter can replace every year, it becomes a target to use it to the full extent.
  • If a manger wants to order a replacement pair of socks, they have to get a counter signature but they are able to authorise their own pay claims..
  • 4-eyes approval principle on every booking is sometimes required, causing the whole crew to suffer because of the more strict checks and balances.

Restricting equipment replacements can be counter-productive if the limit becomes the target.

These examples show how variable the rules are, proving that an overabundance of regulations is not always practical and sometimes is counterproductive to efficient working.

The paradox of control

Over the past several years, there have been increasing pressures on efficiency and cost savings. For many Fire and Rescue Services, this has meant the implementation of stricter rules regarding expenditure.

However, control can be paradoxical, because in order to have a productive organisation, you can tell people what to do, or how to do it. Not both.

By enforcing rules and regulations, services try to run efficiently, but if there are too many – or the wrong type of – rules in place, employees can feel restrained and kill productivity. At the same time, the wrong type of rules can also lower morale or create friction. Employees may perceive that their managers don't trust them to use their best judgment, which can lead to a sense of frustration and powerlessness.

Autonomy leads to efficiency

Adding a bunch of rules and paperwork to a process will only slow it down. An overabundance of rules and processes is a key factor that keeps Fire and Rescue Services from streamlining reporting, procurement or payroll activities and enforces (sometimes) unnecessary steps that can cause friction and inefficiencies.

Autonomy is people's need to perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions.

However, there's a lot more to it. Autonomy is more about ownership, accountability and having a sense of control over how we use our time. In a broader context, autonomy creates a sense of empowerment.

Between the needs of family, work, and other personal commitments, strict expectations don't work for everyone, and when they're too rigid, it can negatively impact autonomy. On the other hand, when the goals and expectations are clear, flexibility can be beneficial for both individuals and services.

Autonomy is likely to lead to better productivity. When management makes decisions about how to keep things under control, they should always think about the effect on firefighters' autonomy.

Empowerment leads to accountability

Empowerment, by definition, means to give power, or in the case of management, let go of power to someone else. It's the managers' responsibility to determine what power looks like and how much to give and, to hold employees accountable, there needs to be a framework that sets roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

There also needs to be a vision, direction, and support to ensure employees have what they need to be successful. They need to be valued as significant contributors and to be shown the impact of their work and their decisions.

Fire and Rescue Services that have a reliable accountability system in place and have a high level of personal accountability among its employees, will also have a culture of empowerment where those individuals will feel they have complete control over the financial performance of their station.

Achieving a high level of empowerment through accountability is the cornerstone of an adapting and efficient organisation. It is also the foundation for high-performing teams that feel in control and are motivated to improve results.

Trust, autonomy and empowerment are three characteristics of high performing teams. To match the demands of the current landscape for Fire and Rescue Services, these could be the key to achieve savings and happier, more committed employees, don't you think?

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