The Perils of FIREFIGHTING in the Office… STOP, DROP, and ROLL

Firefighting in the Office

I can’t remember the last time I have needed a vacation as much as the one I am starting today.  And it is not that I am just excited for a few days off or hoping for a little rest & relaxation… I fundamentally need a vacation to get away from my recent and sustained insanity at the office.  I reached the point where a simple one hour request was taking three hours to complete, where my response to the typical day-to-day office politics went from “tolerated quietly” to “argumentative cynical sarcasm”, and where my activation energy to start any new project is extremely high.  For a variety of reasons, I need to detach and to hit the reset button.

And when I talk about the insanity, I was careful to say my insanity and not the insanity.  As much as I like to believe that I am a passive victim to the craziness around me (and there is no shortage of craziness these days), I know deep down that I am actively responsible for the majority of the stress that I take on.  It’s not that I cause it (usually!), but how I choose to engage and to respond to the various “crises” at work ultimately dictate my result.  Basically, it is not the craziness of the world around me that brings me down… it is my response.

I don’t know if it is the speed of the workplace today, the financial pressures and uncertainties, or the ever growing demands to do “more with less”, but it does feel like the work environment is far more out of control than ever before.  And this is not just my office… as I talk to my friends and colleagues at various companies around the world, the corporate landscape has a “Business ADHD” vibe about it that is leading to a dramatic increase in activity and panic and a decrease in strategy and common sense.  I don’t think this is intentional by any means and I cannot imagine that anyone deliberately started to operate this way… but what started as a gradual increase in office entropy feels like it is now bordering on absolute chaos.  The once sporadic crisis and “fire drill” is now a sustained sequence of one new “fire” after another, and this pace cannot be sustained in a healthy way.

I hesitate to use the term “fire” here, as there are so many true “fire fighters” out in the world dealing with real life-and-death issues.  What we do each day may be treated as “life or death” situations within the cubicles, but the heat and destruction that our office “fires” cause are largely overly dramatic…  It’s just “soap” afterall.  That said, I do think the “fire” metaphor is a good one in talking about dealing with the crises and panic that can ensue on any given day in the office.  This includes the actual fires that we are responsible for effectively and urgently extinguishing, the “fire drills” that are a false alarm to generate a sense of action but with an artificial source, and the avoidance of future fires when environmental factors suggest that the threat of fire is imminent.  The following “Fire Safety” tips are designed to help respond and react to office fires and for the prevention of getting “burned out”.

1)  When you are being burned by a real and and intense office “fire”… STOP, DROP, and ROLL.  In the event that the crisis at the office is real, the danger is imminent, and that you are actively getting “burned”:

  • STOP all other activities and deal with the fire.  Yes, you probably have 10 other issues at hand and 200 emails in your Inbox begging for a response… but if there is an inferno raging, stop all non-critical activities and put the fire out.
  • DROP the extra balls that you are juggling and singly focus on the crisis at hand.  Delegate, delay, or denounce extraneous activities so as to keep the fire at bay and to keep it from spreading.
  • ROLL with the situation and don’t panic.  Running faster without thinking will just fan the flames and accelerate the burning.  Deal with the issue in a controlled yet urgent manner and calmly roll through the situation until the fire is out.

2)  Beware the Office Pyromaniac.  Every office has at least one “fire starter”… whether because he just likes to carelessly “play with matches”, because he likes the excitement and drama of a burning building, or because he has a “hero complex” and likes the praise for putting out fires (even if it means he has to start them in the first place!).  If an individual seems to always be running in and out of burning buildings and surrounded by danger, this person may be doing more damage than good.  Try to keep the pyromaniac away from your teams, so as not to get burned through reckless or deliberate fire starting.

3)  As managers, remember that not every fire makes “the News”.  For every public and celebrated firefighter, there are typically dozens of fires extinguished each day behind the scenes and with little fanfare.  If there is someone on your team who is producing strong results with seemingly little drama, it is likely not because she is “lucky” and avoiding fires but rather that she is putting them out without requesting backup or praise.  Know your organization and be sure not to just reward and recognize the firefighters who relish the limelight, but also the humble “public servants” who fight the fire quietly, under the radar, for the good of the team.

4)  Fire preventers are just as heroic as Fire extinguishers.  Similarly, respect and reward the individuals who manage to keep the fires from starting in the first place.  While it is easy to see the heroism of the individual ready to run into the burning conference room and save the day with a stream of analysis and clever rhetoric, it is often more difficult to recognize the everyday heroes who never let the fires get started in the first place.  Make sure that the Preventers get as much heroic treatment as the Extinguishers… or else you will end up with a culture of individuals constantly starting and fighting fires so as to show their heroism so as to earn praise, rewards, and recognition.

5) Don’t fight fire with fire.  Sadly the “Fight fire with fire” response happens far too often.  Do you know of a manager whose response to a crisis is to pick an individual or a team and “light a fire under their ‘seats’” to try and fuel an even greater sense of urgency and panic?  First, if there is truly a fire burning and your team is not urgently working to put it out, then you probably have the wrong team.  Second, by lighting this added fire you generally are just accelerating the issue and ensuring that your team gets further burned.  Third, sending panicked, nervous people into a dangerous situation only adds fear into a situation where courage is needed.  Net, don’t fight fire with fire… fight it with “H2O” and give your “Help 2 the Organization”- Provide the essential tools, support, and protection they need to confidently address the issue, knowing that they have your confidence and your reinforcements if help is needed.

6)  Don’t assume that every fire is a systemic issue.  Typically, a crisis is an isolated issue and does not warrant a preventative and restrictive solution to never let it happen again.  Sometimes fires just happen and an over reaction must be avoided. Often though, in a desire to prevent accidents from happening in the future, excessive “security measures” can be put in place in an attempt to eliminate future fires.  While the intention is good, extra rules, procedures, and complexity can hinder progress across an organization while overkilling an issue that may have been a one-time occurrence in the first place.  While it is important to react and to learn from a fire, it is equally important not to over-react and add restriction and rules to a system that is actually not even broken.

7)  Remember that where there is smoke, there is NOT necessarily fire.  Typically before a fire starts, there will be signs that it is coming… A warning call from a colleague, an elevating series of emails, or the calling of an urgent crisis meeting can all preclude an urgent fire drill. That said, sometimes this “smoke” is truly just smoke, and what might look like a fire on the outside may truly be an illusion- an overzealous colleague making a mountain out of a molehill, an alarmist prematurely pulling the fire alarm, or maybe just a troublesome co-worker who can’t stop “blowing smoke”.  Before calling in the cavalry and dialing up the fire hoses, sift through the smoke and make sure that there is actually a fire to be extinguished.

At the end of the day, stress and “fires” are and will continue to be a constant reality in our jobs (and in our lives), and our health, well-being, and job satisfaction will be dictated not by the fires themselves, but by how we respond to them.  For me, my first step is to take this week of vacation and to “flee the scene of the crime” so as to detach, de-stress, and decompress.  The trick will be to keep a grounded perspective when I ultimately return to the office and to take the appropriate measures to make sure that I don’t get “burned” or “burned out”.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on


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