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7 Reasons Why Teams Fail

There are many reasons why teams fail. For example, teams fail when one person wants to take all the credit. My answer to that is if you want to take all the credit when things go right, you have to be willing to accept all the blame when things go wrong. Teams also fail when they are consumed with drama. Drama is what happens when a team is not focused on a goal. People with purpose don’t have time for drama. Below are seven of the top reasons why teams in the fire service fail. A smart leader is proactive and will try and identify early warning signs before their team collapses. Take a quick read and see if one or more apply to your team.

1. No Vision

If you have read any of my books, you know I use the words “goal” and “vision” a lot. This is not by accident. A vision is a mental image of what your team is trying to accomplish. That is where the concept of a vision statement comes from (similar to a mission statement). Having vision means you see your team achieving success in the future. One or two team members may set the standard and ultimately determine the end goal, but everyone on the team should be included in the vision casting process. If your team is operating without clarity, they will not work cohesively. When this happens, members lose enthusiasm and motivation. Your goals may change along the way, but make no mistake about it – A team without vision is destined to fail.

2. Avoidance of Accountability

Lack of accountability isn’t only a problem on the fire ground. Have you ever worked on a team where it seemed no one wanted to work or take responsibility? That is an enormous problem. Teams are unlikely to achieve success if even one person refuses to fulfill their role. When a person fails to be personally responsible, they are failing to be accountable to others on the team. The success of any team is largely dependent upon the involvement of every person on the team. Bringing talent, skill and ability to the table is only half the equation. The other, more important part, is utilizing those skills to improve the team. Sometimes lack of accountability can be the result of undefined roles. Sending a group of firefighters into battle without assigning them a specific task will only cause confusion for everyone. A ladder company sent to the roof to ventilate has a completely different task than the engine crew stretching the initial attack line. Both groups are on the same team, trying to accomplish the same goal, but if their task isn’t defined, the mission is doomed. The same can be said for business teams, sports teams, and recreational teams.

3. Unresolved Conflict

Put five or more people in a room and eventually there will be friction. Even if they appear to be best friends, in time they will be forming alliances and becoming increasing hostile towards each other. Try to name ten rock bands that have stayed together (with their original members) for ten years or more. It’s nearly impossible for one simple reason – egos, which lead to unresolved conflict. We are all different. I cannot stress enough the importance of identifying and embracing each member of your team’s uniqueness. But the key for the rest of the team to understand that your differences are what enable you to become stronger. If this is not understood, those same unique qualities are also the very things that cause major conflicts. When tension occurs on your team, it must be identified early and dealt with in a timely fashion. Failure to do that will cause the problem to intensify. A small, unresolved conflict among two or more members can become a runaway freight train that will dismantle the team and result in failure. Conflict is inevitable, but if handled in properly it can help you develop a stronger team.

4. Power Struggles

A team leader with an out-of-control ego will destroy a successful team in record time. The only thing worse than a leader with an ego, is two leaders with egos. In the fire service, we often joke that the acronym CHAOS stands for Chief Has Arrived On Scene. It’s not uncommon for a group of firefighters to feel that everything was going well until the department head decided to show up. This, of course, is only a problem when that individual is a micromanager who thinks his ideas and methods are better than everyone else’s. According to statistics there is a 70% chance you have worked for a micromanager at some point in your career. If you are contemplating whether this paragraph applies to your personality and leadership style, let me help you out. It probably does. The good news is that you can fix it. Begin by realizing that power struggles make an entire team uncomfortable. When two people are jockeying for position as the leader, the rest of the team become detached and eventually inactive. The end result is a broken team that will not have the ability to accomplish even the simplest goals.

5. No Clear Identity

This is not usually a problem within the fire service. We understand why we exist. Our mission is clear – life safety, incident stabilization, property conservation, protect the weak, serve the public – there is no mistaking what a fire organization does. We have had books written about us. Many movies and television shows have revolved around people doing our job. We don’t have to advertise. When people need us, they call 911, and we appear. We know why we are here, and so does the rest of the world. With that said, sometimes, teams lose their way. Does your team have a clear understanding of its purpose and direction? A strong team will know its direction, focus, and goals. A strong team will take pride in serving their customers and being positive role models for our children. It’s important that your team clearly understands who they are and why they exist.

6. Poor training habits

Let me put it in clear terms. When a fire department spends more time on the fire ground than on the training ground, they are destined to fail. This same theory applied to any performance based organization. You can never train too much, but you can certainly train too little. Worse yet, your team can be spending sufficient time on the training ground, but doing all the wrong things. Practice will not make your team perfect. Perfect practice will make your team perfect. We have no shortage of true experts in our field. If your team is not getting the results they want, bring someone in to help you get on track. Every organization in America brings in an occasional expert to educate and stimulate the team. Mistakes are common in this world, but the time to learn is not when the alarm comes in. We need to be on top of our game long before the incident. Make it your goal to learn something new every day.

7. Improper strategy and tactics

This falls in line with #6, but takes it one step further. Improper training will lead to bad decision making. Strategically, the first few minutes are the most important part of the fire. That is when we position apparatus, stretch lines, ventilate, and put our plan into action. That is also the most stressful part of the incident, which means we have to make incredibly important split second decisions. The ability to do this comes from preparation. Spend time in the books and at the seminars. Train yourself and your team to make smart decisions and fewer mistakes. When you make mistakes, learn from them so they are not made again. A mistake made twice is no longer a mistake, it’s a choice.

Other reasons teams can fail include, poor dynamics, poor communication, absence of trust, poor time management, unclear purpose, lack of fun, and/or inattention to results. If you see any of the signs outlined in this section, be proactive and take corrective action before your team collapses.

“A mistake made twice is no longer a mistake, it’s a choice.” Frank Viscuso

* Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso is a keynote speaker and author of 6 books including the fire service bestseller, Step Up and Lead. He speaks to audiences on leadership development, team building and customer service. He can be reached via email, or through his website,

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