How wildland fire managers talk about risky situations is vital to safety. A better understanding of the language of high-reliability organizing mindfulness is crucial in developing this communication skill.
A recent study analyzed the language wildland fire managers used in order to see if their word choices, phrasing or jargon showed they were practicing one of the five principles of high-reliability organizing as outlined by Weick and Sutcliffe in their book, “Managing the Unexpected.” These principles include:
- Preoccupation with failure.
- Wariness when simplifying.
- Deference to expertise.
- Sensitivity to operations.
- Commitment to resilience.
Researchers learned it was difficult to neatly place individual word choices into one of the five HRO categories but there was no doubt that the primary way firefighters make sense of a wildland fire is through talking about it. As Weick says, “we talk sense into being,” so the language firefighters use has to be a big part of how they size-up and make sense of a wildland fire. How to actually study this HRO language as it is being used is the challenge.
- How we talk to each other about risky situations, as we are trying to make sense of them, is a vital skill.
- We are better thinkers and more informed managers when we remember that language is powerful and structures our thinking in particular ways. As other scholars have noted, the words we naturally tend to use can limit both what we “see” and report.
- One of the best practical uses that can be made of this research is for fire managers, in a group setting, to have discussions about the meanings associated with the language they commonly use to get their work done.
- Ensure that all the members of your fire crew attach the same meaning to the words and metaphors commonly used to describe forest firefighting situations.
Source: Thomas, D. et al (2015). Voices from the field: Wildland fire managers and high-reliability organizing mindfulness. Society and Natural Resources: Vol 28 (8) (2015. doi:10.1080/08941920.2015.1014590).
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This research article, “Voices from the field: wildland fire managers and high-reliability organizing mindfulness,” is available online.
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