Help! My Boss Has Created a Culture of Firefighting

Firefighting is one of the most destructive habits in business. Fire drills follow the same process in every business. First, someone fires off an email alerting the group to some urgent issue. Next, there is a chain reaction of defensive responses and finger-pointing. Then comes the calendar invites to handle the issue. Finally, after many responses and meetings, the team can resume their planned work. Working in a corporate firefighting culture keeps you stuck in a cycle of finding and fighting fires. Over time, you start to doubt yourself, your skills, and question your career choice.

However, in most cases, the fire wasn’t a fire at all. Instead, it resulted from a lack of process, taking shortcuts, or applying bandaids to problems. A culture of firefighting drains operational resources. Moreover, it distracts attention from the bigger issues facing the business. Corporate firefighting reduces productivity, stifles innovation, and kills the culture. Even more, a culture of firefighting creates stressed-out employees, customer attrition, damages the brand, and opens the door for low ethics and integrity.

How does a culture of firefighting happen?

Several points of failure cause firefighting in business and create a culture of firefighting. But, unfortunately, it can seem overwhelming and impossible to change. The more deeply engrained firefighting is to the culture, the more difficult it is to escape. Even worse, some companies reward firefighting, which perpetuates it further.

More problems than problem-solvers create fires

The more lean a company is, the fewer knowledge workers they have to solve problems. As a result, everyone’s attention is directed to the loudest fire, so they neglect other business areas. That is until those areas become a raging fire.

Bandaids instead of solutions

A culture of firefighting makes it impossible to solve root issues. Instead, problems are patched because of time constraints. As a result, the vanity of the issue is addressed while the underlying problems continue to fester.

Lack of follow-through creates a culture of firefighting

Firefighting in business is a direct result of the lack of follow-through on implementing a solution. Since band-aids don’t solve the problem, they reemerge or create new problems. Unfortunately, because resources constantly get redirected to a new fire, there is rarely time to wrap up the first one. And so, the cycle repeats.

Urgency inhibits the important

A firefighting culture interrupts or deprioritizes long-term solutions to focus on fighting the fire. As a result, developing processes to address the root causes move to the back burner or are abandoned altogether.

Lack of communication and prioritization

Fires become a crisis due to a lack of communication and prioritization of problems. So problems sit and smoke until just before the deadline. Then, there is a mad dash to pull off a heroic effort to solve the problem because of the lack of communication or prioritization.

Firefighters are the heroes of the organization

It is easy to mistake a firefighter for a hero because they are saving the day. It is an overly tangible demonstration of someone working hard and solving problems. However, in reality, they are taking shortcuts that cause problems resulting in fires that require rework. Firefighters keep the organization in a cycle of firefighting because they feel it makes them indispensable.

A vast majority of corporate fires are the result of something not getting done right the first time. The rework necessary to extinguish the fire results in additional costs and the diversion of resources that could make a more significant impact elsewhere in the business.

How do you change the corporate culture of firefighting?

Don’t set out to solve a problem without committing to understanding the root cause. Changing a corporate culture from firefighting to problem-solving requires openness and honesty to explore all possibilities so you can arrive at the best valid solution. Perform triage to evaluate all potential impacts and set realistic timelines. The following tips will help you change the culture of firefighting.

Keep the purpose top of mind

Corporate firefighting focuses your attention on what is in front of you. Therefore you lose sight of the bigger picture. Even more, people naturally default to firefighting. So what is your organization trying to accomplish, and why does it matter? Keeping employees focused on your mission, values, and long-term goals keeps them from going into firefighting mode. Your mission provides the stability employees need to get through the shifts in strategy and tactics.

Develop scalable and repeatable processes

Taking shortcuts, not following through, and lack of prioritization are the primary causes of corporate fire drills. Without a well-defined process, you can’t identify if the process is failing or a failure to follow the process. So to change a firefighting corporate culture, developing processes are essential. Prioritize process development, train employees on the process, and analyze process breaks when fires occur. As a result, you ensure quality from the start. In addition, scalable and repeatable processes enable employees to do things right the first time which eliminates rework.

Replace management interference with leadership

With clarity on goals and documented repeatable processes, management interference needs to stop. When things start to break and go wrong, managers panic and act swiftly, so they fire people, change players, start micromanaging, or worse, escalate issues to their peer groups. Their urgency to act results in poorly thought out quick fixes, distracting and consuming everyone’s time. Instead, managers need to immerse themselves in the complexities of the process and root causes of failure before demanding change. Doing so replaces management interference with leadership and will change the corporate firefighting culture.

Address adrenaline addiction to end a culture of firefighting

A culture of corporate firefighting comes from an addiction to the adrenaline rush created by the excitement of having something to fix. As a result, the focus becomes finding a fire to fight. Even more, when there are rewards for finding fires, people will find more fires. So, remove any reward systems in place for finding fires. Instead, reward the development of processes and praise their proper execution. Reward people who do things right the first time instead of those who create a fire drill to do rework. As a result, you remove the adrenaline addition the corporate firefighting culture created.

Stamp our a culture of fear

Reactive behaviors are a result of having a culture of fear running concurrently with a culture of firefighting. As a result, the employees default to cutting corners, manipulating data, and stop generating creative solutions. Remove fear from the culture by getting off your judge’s bench when things go wrong. Instead, partner with your employees, counsel, and guide them daily. As a result, you will learn with and from them to change the corporate firefighting culture.

Extinguishing a firefighting culture doesn’t require new technology and overly expensive “superstar” employees that tend to do more damage than good. It takes a commitment. Commit to providing clear direction, developing scaleable repeatable processes, and accountability for following them. Additionally, pause to get the data before acting with urgency to fix something. Finally, eliminate the heroics of finding fires and, above all, learn from the teams who deliver.

Fighting fires isn’t productive. Takes these steps to eliminate a firefighting culture to improve the client experience, employee experience, and overall productivity. Share your stories of corporate addiction to firefighting in the comments below.

Originally published at https://www.jasoncortel.com on October 6, 2021.

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Changing the world by developing people professionally. Author who blogs about leadership, career advice, and coaching. #WhyYouNow

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Jason Cortel

Jason Cortel

Changing the world by developing people professionally. Author who blogs about leadership, career advice, and coaching. #WhyYouNow

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