(Mis)management by Fire Drill

Posted: October 6, 2013 in Management
Tags: , ,

FireAlarmWhat is the purpose of management in a business? Is it not to manage people, processes and resources in a way that accomplishes the objectives of a business in the most effective, efficient and successful manner possible? If that is the case, then why is it so typical to see managers at various levels of organizations perpetuate the poor management practice of managing (or mismanaging) by fire drill?

You know what I’m talking about. Instead of having a sound strategy, a plan in place to execute on that plan, and focused attention on tactics that accomplish the goals along the way, each day seems to be one chaotic episode after another. Workers may be given an assignment one day, aware of what is said regarding a long-term strategy and goals, yet their day-to-day efforts are constantly disrupted by management demanding all hands on deck to handle the latest “emergency” – management by fire drill which is, of course, mismanagement.

Anyone in business knows that there are legitimate, occasional emergencies that arise which demand immediate attention. In such instances, it is necessary and understandable that people drop what they are working on and handle the situation, returning to the normal effort and focus as soon as possible. It is essential, though, that such occasions be few and far between if a business is to be more proactive than reactive.

Unfortunately, there seem to be some in management who spend more of their days generating and/or passing down fire drills than actually managing in a thoughtful, sound, helpful manner. Why is that? Maybe they’re just passing down what has been handed to them from “mismanagers” above them. Maybe they’re short-sighted and can’t think or plan beyond the immediate, pressing matter. Maybe they’ve never been trained in sound management practices. Maybe they’re examples of the Peter Principle and have risen to the level of their incompetence. Regardless of the reason, the practice is not only disruptive and ineffective in the long term, it’s extremely damaging to the employees whose work is an endless sequence of fire drills.

Think about the heavy toll living in constant fire drill mode has on employees:

  • It prevents accomplishment of the broader objectives they are hired to accomplish.
  • Stress levels are kept at unsustainable, high levels.
  • Employee engagement suffers as dissatisfaction with circumstances rises.
  • Burnout contributes to higher-than-necessary turnover.
  • The emotional impact negatively affects overall personal well-being and, therefore, the health of departments and the organization as a whole.
  • Relationships suffer between employees and management as lack of respect and distrust become commonplace.
  • The company loses its potential greatest ambassadors – its employees.

You may think of additional consequences of fire drill mismanagement I failed to include above.

So what needs to be done about such management practices? That depends on the source of the problem. If the practice is modeled consistently from those at the very top of the organization, then it’s likely that only a change in senior leadership will open the door to cultural change. If the source of the fire drills is a little lower down the org chart, then change must be encouraged from above, beside and below the source of the problem. Better management can be modeled by others. Management training can be offered. Accountability measures can be put in place by leaders who understand the importance of managing properly. Employees may feel safe enough to approach such managers with concerns, but in the absence of such security, perhaps they can risk expressing their concerns to those managers’ superiors. That last one is risky for the employee, but so is allowing the situation to continue unchanged and unchallenged.

The goal ought to be improved management practices – not taking the easier, quicker way of removing the mismanagers or leaving too quickly if you are one of the impacted employees. Of course, both of those options need to remain on the table and may be the necessary option of last resort.

Management isn’t easy. Nobody is perfect. There is always room for improvement in any employee at any level of a company, including managers. But we must not allow to continue the toxic mismanagement practice of one fire drill after another. Businesses can do better than that, and they must if they are to accomplish their reasons for being and if they are to retain healthy, engaged employees.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the matter?

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