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Monday, March 5, 2012

Are you a firefighter? Part 1

I’m getting ready to facilitate another round of AIDT Leadership I Classes.  In doing this, I want to focus for the next couple of weeks on a principle that stands out to class participants and takes on two meanings- playing the role of firefighter.

Last fall, I discussed the 80/20 Rule  and how it affects workplace performance.  Basically, the 80/20 rule postulates that most leaders spend 80% of their time dealing with 20% of their people and these 20% are the poor performers.  In turn, this de-motivates the 80% of your good or great performers.   One way that I’ve found that people try to fight dealing with the 20% is by taking out their fire hose and “spraying” everyone. 

The Classic Firefighting Example

Let me give you an example that I use in class.  I have a friend who leads a team of about eight people.  She was having a problem with one person coming in late to work fairly regularly. This person would stroll in about 8:10-8:15 a.m. three or four days a week when she was supposed to be there at 8:00 a.m.  My friend was complaining about this person being late and told me that she had finally put her foot down to stop it. 

I asked her, “Well what did you do?” 

She said proudly, “I sent an email out to the entire staff to remind them of what our office hours are and that everyone should be in the office and ready to work at 8:00 a.m.” 

“Interesting.” I said, biting my tongue so I wouldn’t ask more questions or say anything about her approach.

A week later, my friend called to complain again about her token late girl.  “This is the third time since I sent the email out last week that she has been late, is she just stupid?” 

I couldn’t refrain from putting my two-cents in anymore, so I said, “Well is anyone else at your office ever late?”

“No!” she said, “They are always here on time, most of them are early. I don’t see why she didn’t get the point that I was directing the email at her!”

“Well why did you send the email to everyone?” I asked.   

After a little bit of silence, she said, “We’ll I thought it would just be easier.  It was quicker to send an email.” 

This is a classic example of taking out your fire hose and giving everyone a good spray to try to correct issues that are coming from a small minority of your workforce.  My friend didn’t put out the "fire" and she probably made those that are consistently on time or early a little perturbed by her email. 

How to put away your fire hose
So after I share this example with the class, I ask, “What would have been a better way for my friend to approach this situation?” 

Take the responses that I usually get as a way to avoid bringing out the ole hose: 

·         Confront the chronically late person (or any person with a performance issue) one-on-one.  Explain to them why being late is unacceptable* and ask if there are issues that are keeping them from reporting to work on time.  If there are, work through these issues with the person. 

·         Be on time yourself! Set the performance example by demonstrating the behaviors you want members of your team to exhibit.

·         Lead consistently.  This means that if your best performer comes in late or has a performance issue come up on the job, you can’t overlook it.   

·         Reward those that are on time (or exhibit any star performance behavior) day in a day out.

Do you have a classic firefighting example like this one to share? 

Stay tuned next week as I discuss the other type of firefighter – the one that thinks everything is a fire and that they are the only one that can put it out.

*As a side note, this may make you stop and take pause as a leader as to whether or not an issue of being late (or any other work policy violation) is really unacceptable behavior.  It may not be, and if this is the case, don’t follow a rule just because it a rule, take strides to change the policy to reflect what is and isn’t business necessity.  You do this, not because you want to avoid having the your late again conversation but because you want to do what’s best for business and your people and this is what leaders do.

In the case of work hours, it may be a hard and fast rule that everyone starts at 8:00 because a shift changes or customer necessity.  It may be a case of where a flex-time policy may be a better fit for your environment and the shift to more flexible hours may be a motivator for your staff.

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