The Motivator: What lumberjacks & EMS providers have in common

I heard a story some years ago that went something like this: A lumberjack who worked in the great northwestern forests of the U.S. was given a proposal. The owner of the company told him that he would triple his pay, but the catch was that the lumberjack would have to remove the head of his ax and chop down trees with just the wooden handle. And he would only be able to swing his wooden handle with the same amount of force as before.

Despite the downfalls of this proposal, the lumberjack jumped at the chance for higher pay. After all, who wouldn_t want to triple their income?

The next week the lumberjack reported for work as usual and swung his wooden handle at the tree all week long, barely making a dent in the bark. The lumberjack came back to work the second week and did the same thing.”ž

By the third week, the lumberjack had had enough. He walked straight into the owner_s office and begged to get back the head of his ax and the lower pay.”ž

The lumberjack realized that money wasn_t enough to motivate him under such unusual circumstances. The satisfaction he got from making progress and contributing was what really kept him going day in and day out as he chopped down trees.

The Ax for EMS
This tale makes me think of EMS. The vast majority of us receive little pay and minimal benefits.“ž

According to theJEMS2008 Salary and Workplace Survey, the median annual salary for a paramedic was $37,699.78. The median annual income for an EMT was $28,196.99. (And don_t forget EMS volunteers who work for free.) When one looks at these salaries, it_s readily apparent that pay is”žnot what motivates EMS providersÆ’it_s helping someone in need, whether it_s saving their life or supporting them through an emotional time.”ž

I_m not discounting the importance of pay, but if money were the only factor in choosing a career and feeling fulfilled, we wouldn_t have many people wanting to work in this profession. Think about Abraham Maslow_s “Hierarchy of Needs” (see figure). The top two levels of the pyramid, “self-actualization” and “esteem,” are the ultimate human needs, but they can be fulfilled only after basic lower-level needs have been satisfied. Throughout life, people strive to reach these high-level psychological objectives, often accomplished through work or a hobby.”ž

So, what kinds of things in EMS fulfill these complex psychological needs? Sometimes, a simple “thank you” from a supervisor for exemplary performance does the trick.”ž

My division chief recently went to a fire station after a nurse from a local emergency department reported that a rookie firefighter/paramedic had done an outstanding job with a critical patient; he had quickly and properly performed pacing, saving the patient_s life. At the fire station, with all the firefighters present, the chief praised the provider for his outstanding work.”ž

A few days later, I decided to personally write the rookie an e-mail to recognize his exceptional care. He responded: “Thanks, chief, for complimenting me on that call I had. I used the external pacer for a third-degree block and really saved this lady_s life. I still get chills when I talk about it. Again, thank you.”

Certainly, he won_t forget the difference he made and the praise he received afterward. That_s why it_s important to provide this positive reinforcement.”ž

Now, my fire chief is taking it a step further by gathering all the uplifting letters that come in from citizens and distributing them to everyone in the department. This gives all employees an opportunity to read them and see how much difference the agency makes in the community.”ž

Another way to motivate employees is to give them the opportunity to be involved in making significant administrative decisions. In the Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department, we have committees comprised of providers who write the ambulance specifications and open the bids to pick which ambulance vendor is awarded a contract. Other committees are dedicated to training, equipment, etc.

Recently, we made a large purchase of more than $2 million to replace our entire fleet of monitors/defibrillators. One of these committees, made up entirely of firefighter/paramedics, made the final decision. They reviewed and examined proposals, sat through vendor presentations, and tried out various options in the field before deciding.

Empowering employees and allowing them to have ownership of certain projects is important. It gives them a stake in determining their organization_s path.

Don_t take the ax head off your employee_s drive to do a good job. Keep the blade nice and sharp by recognizing their talents and allowing them to thrive.JEMS

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire and rescue experience. He_s chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and can be reached

Learn more from Gary Ludwig at the EMS Today Conference & Expo, March 2à6 in Baltimore.

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