Fire-Fighting is Killing Your Team. Here's How to Quit.

Fire-Fighting is Killing Your Team. Here's How to Quit. by Ryan Hansen

Have you ever had one of those managers who just can't seem to stop? It's not that they don't seem to stop - it's as if they can't. For them, the day consists of bouncing from one project to another, from one problem to another, of answering questions and sorting out issues before they become crises. They don't have a minute to talk - or perhaps they have precisely one minute while they're walking from one meeting to the next. Sure, they start the day with an agenda, but other priorities crop up and demand attention.

You can spot this manager in their natural habitat. You'll see him or her hustling from one meeting room to the next, or half-jogging to a bathroom between conference calls. Their team members say things like "Have you seen Sarah?" and "Hey, if you talk to Chris would you ask him to get back to me about that proposal?" Reschedules are a fact of life for these managers; conversations run long or they are pulled into a meeting to talk about fine-tuning that new product that launches next month. When you do get time with them, they are brilliant. They can swoop in and solve almost any problem - until they have to rush off to the next one.

We call these managers firefighters. Maybe you've even heard them describe their day-to-day as "I'm just putting out fires." The name fits - a problem comes up, and they are called in to take care of it. Then another problem crops up and they rush over to take care of that one, too. It seems like a perfectly reasonable approach, but the long-term results are suffocating.

Firefighting Creates Dependency

Well-intended supervisors will tell you that their firefighting approach keeps things moving smoothly. They serve as a central point of contact for questions and concerns, and they can help their team deal with anything that comes up.

In practice, however, firefighting creates a problem-solving model in which team members depend on the manager. And why wouldn't they? They know they can call on their manager for help, so they gladly accept the support. And the next time a problem comes up, they come back to the manager. Team members learn to rely on managers for answers and solutions, and so the cycle repeats itself.

Firefighting is Distracting

Over the long haul, these firefighting tactics take a significant toll on the team. When leaders cannot take their eyes off of the issues directly in front of them, it pulls their attention away from other important issues. This may seem like no more than an inconvenience at first but can develop into a larger problem.

As time goes on and firefighting becomes the norm, leaders may find themselves too distracted to a) dedicate precious time to long-term planning, and b) take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Have you - or a peer - ever postponed a planning meeting because your daily agenda was just too packed? In the worst (but not altogether uncommon) cases, these strategic conversations are delayed indefinitely and eventually drop off of the calendar entirely. Likewise, have you ever turned down a project or conversation because your plate was already too full? How many opportunities have you had to decline?

Stop Firefighting, Start Coaching

Firefighting starts with the best of intentions. Managers are trying to help their team members, so they make themselves available as resources to pitch in. Fortunately, there is a great way to support the team and maintain flexibility.

The answer is coaching.

Coaching lets managers direct and influence the members of their team without getting tied down by the work itself. When we coach our team members, we empower them to grow and let them learn as they do so.

Firefighting rears its ugly head when we insist on having the right answer all the time - the assumption being that a manager's involvement will insure against any mistakes. On the other hand, a coaching approach is based on a belief that we can get to the best answer together, even if there is a misstep or two along the way.

Here's how you can spot the difference: Firefighting is all about telling, while coaching relies on asking.

Firefighters tell their team members what to do next. Their 1-to-1 meetings are full of instructions like: "Email Derek," "Meet with Jessica," and "Put together that presentation for Suzanne." It's not hard to see how team members become dependent on their managers; they complete one step and then wait to be directed to the next. They can only proceed as far as they have been instructed. When obstacles arise, firefighters may find it easiest to jump in and fix things rather than take the time to teach and explain.

Coaches, on the other hand, help their team members see the next steps before they appear. Their meetings include questions along the lines of: "What do you think this project needs to make sure it is effective?" and "Who else do you know who could help with this?" Team members don't have to wait for step-by-step instructions because they have ownership of their projects and they have already talked through the plan. And when a project strays off-target, coaches can use questions to redirect: "How do you plan to overcome ___________?" or "Have you considered how this project will be impacted by _____________?" or "What made you pick this approach over another?" Each iteration provides learning opportunities that inform future endeavors.

So It Turns Out I'm a Firefighter. Now What?

First and foremost, don't feel bad. I'll say it again: firefighting starts off with the best of intentions. Furthermore, sometimes firefighting is a product of the organization and its culture. We see it all the time, and it's not anyone's fault in particular. However, it's important to recognize that the policies and processes that made sense before might not make sense for you any longer. If you can't change things on your own, it might be time to look at coaching up (that's another full blog post!) to create movement. On the other hand, if you can affect change on your own, here are a few considerations:

You can start by transferring power back to your team members. Make a list of your active projects, and look for opportunities to give more responsibility to another team member. Do you really need to join that Zoom meeting tomorrow? Can someone else take the lead on the client call next week?

Next, consider the dialogues in your 1-on-1 meetings. Are you telling, or are you asking? In cases where you are telling, can you do more asking? Be patient - this new approach may surprise your team members. With time, you'll see them grow and develop, and the results might just blow you away.


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