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How to Get Out of Everyday Fire Fighting | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Dr. Mary Kay
January 28, 2016
3 Comments

Fire Fighting

Over the last few months have you noticed a lack of communication skills between people at work?

People feeling stress, not getting things done, and too many priorities to keep their head above water?

It’s as if you need some time management tips to find time to meet and solve problems together. There are just too many day-to-day issues to deal with so the communication problem has now grown from ineffective communication to a motivation problem. Wow, what next?

What Not to Do

If people at work (or even at home) are not motivated for whatever reason it definitely impacts productivity. When this happens, leaders often make the mistake of trying to tackle the end result instead of getting to the root of the actual problem.

That is, instead of looking at why morale is low or how they can raise it, they make a critical error by honing in on productivity.  Here are some common work place examples:

  • Posting Performance Data

A chart or slogan in the work area is posted so team members can focus on their performance levels. This works for goal attainment, but not if morale is the source of productivity problems. Managers who do this sort of thing believe that if they talk about production numbers every day, it will be enough to take care of low morale.

  • Redistributing the Workload

Switching team members from one job to another may feel like a fresh solution, but in reality, it may only cause more resentment and low morale. Instead, leaders should be looking at a lack of communication as the cause of productivity problems.

  • Setting Up an Efficiency System

If team productivity is down, this may seem like the answer. Although looking at inefficiencies is a positive move, the results will only be a temporary fix if communication is lacking in the workplace.

  • Blaming Individual Workers

When faced with one employee who seems to be frustrating everyone else, instead of trying to develop the employee or communicate with him or her directly, the reactive manager often makes excuses for why he can’t. “That’s just how he is,” the manager might say, as though he can do nothing about it. “We just have to work around him.”

These actions are examples of short-term Band-Aids for the real problem of low morale, which can be like a wound that refuses to heal.

In reality, leaders need to pay close attention to this phenomenon because though it may seem like just a matter of unhappy employees, low morale goes beyond that superficial level.

When team members are not motivated and unhappy, often it is not a time management, technical, or task-related problem – it is a people problem.

A Different Approach

Rather than move forward by trying to make changes based on cold, hard numbers think about improving a morale problem the way you ride a bicycle. In order to ride a bike you need to balance your weight. If you keep reverting to numbers and analysis as a solution you are not balancing your weight and become a unicycle. You put in a lot of effort without getting very far.

Related:  Servant Leadership Whole Person Inventory

As leaders we need to balance our priorities for working with people (communicating and leading) and getting the task done (doing and managing).

The Bicycle Analogy

Let’s look at a bicycle as an analogy of this balance between being a team member and a doer. The bike’s front wheel is the people side of the business, which deals with attitudes, cooperation, communication, conflicts, interactions, and motivation.

It’s spontaneous, and it’s the way you communicate and interact with others to get the job done. All of these skills require leading instead of managing.

The back wheel is the task side, consisting of procedures, policies, job responsibilities, roles, and responsibilities. It’s more structured than the front wheel; it’s your technical expertise, and what you do for a living. These areas require management skills like managing time and priorities.

bicycleOn a bicycle, both wheels must work together in order for you to get anywhere, although each does have its separate purpose. The back wheel is what you use to keep the workplace up and running (being a doer), but the front wheel is how you steer your way through it (leading by being a team member).

You need to put people and their concerns before back-wheel matters or you will continue to have ongoing, productivity problems. You will continually be putting out fires.

When you solve front wheel problems first, back wheel (technical) issues will more times than not resolve themselves; members of your team will follow their job responsibilities independently, and you won’t need to take time out of your day to follow up and remind them. No more fire fighting!

If you’re really good at tasks, processes, and the procedures of your job, you may find it difficult to find a good balance between managing tasks and leading people.

You may put too much emphasis on the back wheel and too little on the front wheel; maybe you just don’t see the importance of constantly switching back and forth between being a “team member “and a “doer”. In order to create a culture that emphasizes success, you must find a way to strike a balance between the two.

Unicycle Analogy

We often fail to achieve balance because we try to deal with people in the same detached way that we deal with our tasks. We use a cut-and-dried, black-and white, very structured approach, telling people what to do and making demands instead of taking time to solicit feedback and communicate.

In other words, we try to force “people issues” into the “management” mold. How do I know? I see managers hopping on their policy and procedure unicycle to handle people problems out of habit, when what they really need to do is just sit down and listen to what team members have to say—and figure out a solution together.

How Do You Get Out of Fire Fighting?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Mary Kay

Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and founder of the About Leaders community and drMaryKay.com. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Online course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Kirk Hallowell

    It took me some time to get these ideas in my head. I often tried working on our production problems only considering the back wheel- working on the “what not to do” items. We have now invested a good deal of training and team meeting time working on the front wheel and the difference is noticeable.

    Thanks you for this great reminder and great analogy to the bike.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker

    Thanks Kirk for commenting on your personal, leadership experience using the front wheel approach to problem solving.

  • I like the bicycle analogy. I have often found that behavior follows belief and the front wheel as you have described it is all about shaping the beliefs of team members. Beliefs in the vision; beliefs in their capability. I agree that with these beliefs in place, the often more tactical details will take care of themselves and lead to desired performance.

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