Do You Strike the Match or Extinguish the Fire?

Organizations have fire starters: those who escalate issues causing havoc and drama in the process. They also have fire fighters: people who scurry to find a way to pacify, implement or solve emergencies.  Regardless of the position, it costs the company and everyone involved lots of time and money by not communicating effectively.

My issue with many businesses, especially large ones fraught with multiple layers of management is that a simple dictate from a high ranking exec may start out as a “when you get a chance” kind of comment, but later turns into a ” fire drill” as it’s passed down the chain of command. Sure there are honest critical crunches when all hands on deck is imperative to meet deadlines or a special project. But in the corporate telephone game, since these directives are rarely formalized or written down, confusion or others’ interpretations often drive a normal delivery time into “needing it yesterday.”

It can also happen through some self-serving manager along the way trying to look important by claiming the item is “hot” and needed ASAP by the executive who only casually mentioned the detail in the first place.  In the meantime schedules are juggled, meetings and tasks are postponed in order to attend to the now frenzied issue.  Gaining momentum as it circulates through the organization, very few people push back or even consider going to the original leader for clarification. I’ve even watched these feats accomplished in record time and when presented to the originator, they are met with a look of confusion or a shrug, long forgetting the original comment they made.

This is not a problem isolated to large corporations, even the entrepreneur or small business owner can have employees or sub-contractors racing around to respond to their seemingly urgent needs. Which highlights the need that as a leader, communicating and yes, even formalizing requests with clear due dates can make a huge difference regarding time, energy and profits. It keeps everyone on the same page and gives realistic priorities to the work at hand. Using this process, if a situation arises that truly is needed STAT, it will get the necessary immediate attention. An executive’s awareness of the requests put forth and how they are implemented is essential to keep an organization running efficiently. Although you can’t keep your finger on the pulse of all the issues, at least know the ones you’ve initiated have been clearly outlined with realistic deliverables, directions and expectations.

Beware of people in organizations  who thrive on the excitement of watching others become alarmed. These culprits fan the flames with misinformation, scare tactics and just plain gossip.  This is especially effective when major shifts are occurring in the direction or re-organization of the business which provide excellent kindling to spark rumors.  Before you know it these false facts have spread over the entire organization.

So how can YOU prevent  fires at work?

  • Communicate effectively: Take the extra time in all your dealings to be succinct and clear. Before talking with someone about a specific issue or project, think about what you are going to say, write down the key talking points, look at the topic from the other person’s perspective and imagine questions they might have to help you better explain the topic. By assuming the role of another, you become a better communicator yourself.
  • Don’t be an accelerant: When things get frantic, remain calm, and don’t take every edict at face value. Continue to research and dig deeper to find out the truth when rumor is involved. Ask enough questions when a project escalates to make sure all the facts are known before scrambling to respond.  Your taking the time to gather the facts may encourage others to the do same, thus slowing this runaway fire.
  • Be proactive: If there are changes going on in your organization be direct with the employees letting them know some changes are imminent, yet assure them you will keep them informed along the way. The biggest danger within companies is the fear of the unknown. Although you may not be able to tell them all the specifics, they will trust that you are keeping them updated.
  • Don’t overreact: Save those matches for a real crisis when you’ll need to light a big fire and will require the immediate attention of all involved.