The psychology of motivation, specifically as described in self-determination theory, predicts that people will be most motivated when their basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are supported by a product or experience. (For a refresher on the basic needs, check out this post on Wired Innovation Insights.)
I’ve been interested in what motivates people to work in risky or difficult jobs, and spent some time researching firefighters. Aside from the many obvious motivations that might lead someone to join the fire department, I also saw some nice alignment in the way the firefighting job is structured with the tenets of self-determination theory. In some ways, firefighting is a great example of strong motivational job design.
Autonomy. Firefighting is a highly skilled occupation. To be a firefighter, you must understand civil engineering, chemistry, and physics (just to list a few). In an actual fire situation, firefighters must apply their knowledge of how the building is constructed, how the fire is behaving, and what suppression methods are most likely to be effective in order to douse the flames efficiently and with minimal loss. Although there are best practices and standard ways of attacking a fire, every situation offers firefighters an opportunity to make choices and apply their own best judgment.
At a higher level, firefighting offers many people a way to live into what they believe is their larger purpose. Firefighters often value the fabric of community and see their work as a way to protect and enhance it. Going to work every day serves the purpose of their ultimate goal–so much so that other forms of recognition may not even be needed.
No one other than the other crews at the fire knows what we did. The funny thing is, that’s enough.
Competence. As previously mentioned, firefighters must use their best judgment when on a call. This means their job offers them many opportunities to become more effective as they observe what works better and what doesn’t. In the immediate situation, firefighters can see the effects of their work as fires are put out, structures are saved (or not), and medical emergencies are resolved.
Connecting back again to the idea of community, firefighters also may have their sense of competence supported by knowing that they help others through their work. Unlike many other helping professions, firefighters may never get close enough to the recipients of their efforts to really know them, but they nonetheless feel motivated by the idea of helping them:
We gave it everything that we had, never once thought about the danger that we were placing ourselves into, and for who? Total strangers.
Relatedness. Finally, as my research has shown, firefighting strongly supports a person’s need for relatedness by facilitating their relationships not just with the communities they serve, but with each other. Connections between firefighters becomes a source of motivation for the work and a sustaining force when stresses mount.
One firefighter summed it up in his statement:
You’ll probably find through your research that firefighters are almost a ‘different breed’ of society. Often times we think alike, act alike, and get along with each other, even if we’ve never met. Firefighters all seem to have the same feelings about their profession. No other job could you find so many employees who actually look forward to going into work. This is truly something special, which all firefighters share . . . My fellow firefighters have been my rock . . .No one could ask for a more loving, nurturing, caring family than that of the Fire Service.