Fighting Fires at Work

Out in the forest or in our neighborhood, we recognize a firefighter rather easily: a heavily-clad person, holding a fire hose, walking up or down a ladder, or performing some other tasks that reduce or end a conflagration.

Managers, consultants, and others are often expected to be “fire fighters.” Here we do not wear hip boots — although, come to think of it, this is a rather nifty idea. The water we apply to the fire is taken from our pool of resources and skills. We use ladders to reach our goals and comprehend the hierarchy. Fire fighting in organizations usually means solving crisis problems or calming interpersonal flare ups.

As a customer, I recently had a series of problems (fires) while working with a plant manager in a small company. I tried all the strategies I know as a consultant and manager and conflict mediator. I even resorted to complaining about him to his secretary — I shamelessly admit that I stooped that low. She responded with a trace of empathy with me, as she rose to his defense. She mentioned how hard he works. With that comment, visions came to my mind of the cat I had in childhood who chased his tail. He worked hard — no question about that! He usually did not reach his goal, but when he did, he hurt himself.

In thinking of this plant manager as a fire fighter, here is the scenario that leaps to view in my mind: With limited facts, he looks like a fire fighter because he fights fires. With additional facts, we discover that when no one is watching, he sets the fires that make him look like a hero when he douses the flame. So, the truth is he is an arsonist!

I do not want to imply that all organizational fires are set intentionally by the firefighters or by anyone. Many occur by internal combustion. Or carelessness. Or ignorance. Or because something needs to be burned.

Inside or outside organizations, fires and firefighting offer a range of possibilities and growth opportunities. Fires and firefighting can be planned or unplanned. Fires can be destructive and/or purifying. Fighting fires can be draining and/or satisfying.

What is your fire? Are you a firefighter? An arsonist? Burned? Fired up? On fire?