Fire Drills, Shit Shows, Smoke & Mirrors:  Problems in Company Culture and Leadership

I recently caught up with a Scaling Up Coach, and he told me that in his annual planning with a company they made the statement that “they are firefighters.” His response was “You fight fires for business?” And they said “No, we’re just really good at putting out fires.”

This opens up a larger conversation about what we often see in organizations, which is this: identifying with and thriving in stressful and chaotic situations as if it’s a good thing. Tight deadlines, all-nighters and project crises are becoming a norm when they shouldn’t be.

Hearing your team members use phrases such as “band-aid solutions” and “shit show” are huge red flags. It means they are in a constant state of reacting and prone to doing fire drills in the workplace. “Fire drills” is a term for situations where everyone is expected to stop what they’re working on and respond with speed to a seemingly urgent matter. 

There may be rare instances where urgent issues come up that require fire drills, but if this becomes a consistent occurrence in your company, it’s a sign of dysfunction in culture and leadership. When fire drills become your modus operandi, it can lead to burnout and disengaged or disgruntled employees. Moreover, doing fire drills to solve a problem can actually be the problem itself. 

So… how do I resolve these problems and extinguish “fire drills”?

How much time, energy, talent and money have you wasted from these “fire drills” at work?

Fire drills come in many forms. They could be flavor-of-the-month initiatives that aren’t directly correlated with people’s strategic plans or meetings; or they could look like a meeting that requires everyone’s attendance even if they don’t have a direct value to each participant. Whatever fire drills look like, they have the same outcome: taking time away from efforts that could be much more useful elsewhere.

More often than not, fire drills are unnecessary. People just love the expediency of the fire drill process because it gives them a sense of purpose and a source of instant gratification. 

Oftentimes people continue moving from one fire to the next, which alleviates the present pain without addressing the root cause of the problem. It’s all smoke and mirrors: It makes you believe that something is being done when it is not. It’s a waste of resources because most likely the same problem will happen again since the source of the issue is not dealt with.

As a leader, you can set the tone for your entire team by slowing down. Instead of resorting to fire drills, invest more time upfront in understanding the problem. Identify where the problem comes from, and assess the situation. Once you determine the real source of the problem, you can come up with a more permanent solution. Solutions that actually work save you from wasting time, effort and repetitive work on the backend. 

This shift from being reactive to taking control of a situation is also beneficial if you want to become a leader in your industry. What sets Toyota apart from the rest of the world is that they don’t just do Kaizen and process improvement: they lead the industry standard. People are looking to them for what to do next because they have developed a process that works and continues to work long term.

If you want to lead in your industry, you can’t just react to what is happening: You must innovate and continue to improve. And if you want to successfully bring these changes to your company, you must understand the role of culture. 

Understanding How Culture Affects Process

When people think of processes, they don’t necessarily think of culture… but they are one in the same. Culture guides how you and your people work, which ultimately affects your processes and everything in your workplace.

Are you creating an environment of always delivering the right process the right way at the right time? Or are you allowing a culture of fast action, trial and error (not really knowing what’s working and what’s not) to persist in your company? 

This culture of equating success to doing more in short periods of time—as we see in “fire drill” situations—is one of the reasons why many glorify being a workaholic, especially in Western culture. Leaders tend to praise doing more rather than doing things well, despite evidence showing that working more makes people less productive. A study from Stanford University found that productivity decreases significantly when a person works more than 50 hours a week. 

It’s your job to cultivate a company culture that makes the difference.

If you want to put an end to fire drills in your workplace, you must cultivate a culture that rewards people who plan and prepare, not just people who get the job done by any means necessary. 

If you want to be a leader in your industry, you must cultivate a culture that invites innovation where failure is tolerated, collaboration is encouraged and knowledge and improvement are coveted.

There is no one-size-fits-all culture that works for all companies, but human leaders who are guided by empathy, compassion and understanding can make a difference in creating a company culture that allows its people to enjoy a healthy and thriving work environment set up for success.

In love and respect,

Hilary Corna

Hilary Corna

Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Podcast Host, Founder of the Human Way ™...

Hilary’s favorite title is HUMAN.


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I am starting a revolution. One business and one person at a time.



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