Consider two conversations today. Both are new paramedics, under two years. Both are speaking to their tour supervisor. Two different departments.
#1: Medic opens discussion with Chief, informally and outside of work, asking about ways to work on operational and professional development. Medic finishes the conversation with. “I am just trying to be the best I can be. I don’t want to be just an average paramedic or just a warm body in the truck. I want to be the best I can for the department.”
#2: Chief opens discussion with Medic, while at work and as a method of correction, about poor attitude and lazy habits. The supervisor highlights how the behavior is toxic and impacts everyone at work. Medic finishes the conversation with “Well that’s not going to change, I work way too much to not be lazy.”
Which direction do we tackle this from? Is it a tale of two medics?
Medic #1 obviously has the better attitude. Proactive, engaged, looking for long-term investment and opportunities without having it handed to them.
Medic #2 has a negative approach. The interaction with their supervisor has zero impact on them and their response indicates that they have no intention of changing their behavior, regardless of the fact that it is being brought to them as negative and unwanted by their chain of command.
It is easy to send Medic #2 to the guillotine on this one, this is obviously not someone you want infecting your line staff. Honestly identifying the toxic people is the easy part. Every organization has them. The issue is not that they exist, but what do you do about them?
The small story here is a tale of two medics, two people with individual histories and ethics. The larger one is a tale of two cultures.
Medic #1 felt comfortable enough to approach someone higher in the chain of command and look for realistic feedback on their abilities. They talked not only about personal development but being able to directly contribute to the success of the department. That speaks to his work ethic and overall attitude. You bring a lot of yourself to your work, but in order for it to flourish it needs an environment that stimulates and supports it. By wanting to produce a better effort on behalf of the team, it shows that the work culture is positively supporting growth. The Force is strong in this one.
(Yeah, I’m gonna mix my metaphors today – there is absolutely no reason that you cannot superimpose Star Wars on A Tale of Two Cities. I do what I want.)
Medic #2 felt secure enough in his position, both personally and professionally, to essentially tell his supervisor that their opinion did not matter and that he had no intention of changing his process. In a formal setting meant for corrective action, he not only did not accept the commentary he responded by saying he intended to keep doing the same things he was being called out on.
He knew not only that he could say it, but that he wasn’t going to get fired for it.
If nothing is done to address toxic people, they fester and infect and essentially just wallow in their perpetual hour of discontent. To me, this interaction says 1) he’s a disrespectful ass, and 2) the culture supports him being an ass and disrespecting his chain of command. That makes me sad for the supervisor, who now works twice as hard to address an issue.
These are people who need to be culled and culled early. Cut from the herd. With a guillotine. Ok, maybe decapitation is a bit much but if they behave like this and the administration does not support the chain in an appropriate response – all it does is send the message to the rest of the staff that authority only operates in extremis. That nothing will happen to them over something minor. This is a risk you run when there are no consistent practices in place and you think the Bastille will stand forever. It tells the supervisors they are on their own, with no ability to help develop a supportive culture and proactive response.
In all fairness, in some agencies, there are measures in place that make addressing subjective topics difficult, although not impossible. Without accurate and consistent documentation and fair practices, it is easy for people like this to continue to contribute little more than the presence of a warm body and the bare minimum allowed by law (or metabolism, because sometimes mouth-breathing is going to be as good as it gets). When the supervisors are struggling, the leadership should provide vision and direction, supporting a culture that looks to the good of the team and not just the individual effort.
The last line in A Tale of Two Cities reads, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
It’s funny, I feel the same way about moving to Alaska.