Culture and Quicksand

Aaron Dix and Penny Couillard

In an iconic scene from the 2000 sports comedy, The Replacements, the football coach, played by Gene Hackman, asks his team of unconventional players to discuss their fears. After a hilarious sequence of players professing their fear of different insects, the quarterback, played by Keanu Reeves, shares that his fear is “quicksand.” He explains: “You’re playing and you think everything is going fine. But then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. And you try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Till you can’t move, you can’t breathe, because you’re in over your head—like quicksand.” 

Workplace culture, like a sports team’s experiences on the field, is built upon momentum. When your team is winning—scoring points and working cohesively—morale is high, and your success breeds more success. The inverse is also true. When your team experiences defeat, communication becomes difficult as people point fingers and lose confidence in each other, and errors occur more frequently. Morale suffers, the group loses cohesion, and the team sinks deeper. 

Very few organizations have been insulated from the challenges of our time: a rapidly changing workforce, inflation, reductions in reimbursement, call volume increases, and a degradation of public trust toward public servants. Our organizations have struggled over the past two years. As we continue to struggle we only seem to experience more failures. 

How does an organization fighting multiple challenges recover? 

First, stop fighting against it. Just like rescuing yourself from actual quicksand, fighting frantically against a problem only makes it worse. A crisis requires specific, meaningful action: defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and working towards a common goal. Determine what is actually causing the problem rather than just reacting to its superficial symptoms. 

Second, declare an emergency. Far too often, we fear admitting that our organizations need improvement. By not acknowledging the problems we face, we risk gaslighting the team and demonstrating that leadership is separated from the realities of what is occurring in the field. We must admit that the situation is not normal or acceptable and work together to find a solution.

Third, take extreme ownership. As Navy Seal Jocko Willink argues in his books on the subject, everyone, and especially leaders, must take ownership of what happens in an organization. We can approach our work with humility and openly communicate our desire to do better. We can show others that we are committed to improving, and we can ask them to help us do so. There’s an old Chinese proverb, “The fish rots from the head down.” Accept that you own the situation, and ask for help from your team. View your organization issues as an iceberg. Only 10% of your issues are known by leadership while 100% of the issues are known by the field. Again, you cannot escape the quicksand without understanding what is causing it.  

Fourth, redefine your department’s priorities. Determine what is truly important to the department and ensure that those issues receive the amount of attention that they deserve. We all have a policy and procedural handbook with hundreds of pages. How many of those policies are essential, especially during times of great strife? Some argue that not enforcing strict standards for uniforms, for example, reflects a lowering of standards. We should first insist that standards essential to the performance of our duties are met, and then we can focus on minutia. 

Fifth, ask for help to reduce your volume. When employee turnover occurs, team members that stay on with the team feel the weight of their workload grow exponentially.   Their palpable frustration negatively affects the organization’s overall culture and results in an unwelcoming experience for new team members. The new members then seek work elsewhere, and the hiring spiral continues. Prisma Health Ambulance service provides 911 assistance for two counties. Additionally, as our agency took on additional volume, we hired other private vendors to reduce our overall volume. For fire departments, who traditionally have lower volume than EMS agencies, assess your minimum staffing levels. Utilize mutual aid as you rebuild your team. Straining your full-time members with forced overtime will only continue to worsen your culture and hiring woes. 

Lastly, find ways to limit turnover. Team members who embrace the core values of your department are invaluable. Staffing challenges cannot be a reason to retain problematic team members. Smaller, high-quality teams will do significantly better than larger, dysfunctional ones. Their success will create and attract more success. 

Quicksand occurs when sandy soil is saturated with water and the individual particles loose friction. Similarly, a department can get saturated with issues, thus eroding the team’s cohesion and ability to solve problems. Recognizing the quicksand and taking deliberate meaningful action is the only way to pull the department out to safety.  

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