Every manager and almost every employee has tended his share of workplace fires. From smoldering embers to raging infernos, they hamper our ability to manage the routine events upon which our operations depend. The world is not a perfect place, and we should be proud of our ability to multitask, to resolve issues, and to maintain control, whether in crisis or otherwise. But how often have you said (or heard) “I spend too much time putting out fires?” Perhaps much more than you would like.

When it comes to workplace fires, there are three core ideas to keep in mind: identify and manage the real fires; dispatch the false alarms (that is, distinguish them from the real deal); and prevent fires whenever possible.

I spent the first 20 years of my professional life in the field of transfusion medicine and therapy. I saw my share of major fires, such as trauma victims and surgical cases with complications. Despite the fact that these fires occurred without warning, I was trained and conditioned in such a way that enabled me to aid in putting out these fires. The experience improved my fire-fighting skills as well as my ability to differentiate the real fires from the false alarms.

Dial 911

The assembly line halts because components are out of stock, the already irate customer is handled inappropriately—no matter what your industry, a real fire is an immediate concern. These situations are not difficult to recognize: They interrupt the typical work flow and demand prompt resolution.

Managing these situations is a matter of responsiveness and preparedness. Once a fire occurs, it is essential to take immediate action; a small fire has the potential to grow larger. Do not let it! Everyone should have a role in fire management, whether it is recognizing or extinguishing the blaze. Staff must be prepared either to take action or to communicate quickly to those who will take action.

Not all fires can be prevented. Whether or not a fire can be prevented, every fire should be viewed as an opportunity to prepare for future occurrences. Learn from past events, and take steps to prepare for future occurrences.

Oops! Just Kidding

Rumors, misunderstandings, hearsay . . . suffice it to say, a false alarm is very intrusive and often more time consuming than the real deal. A false alarm is an event (often a personal account of something happening in the workplace) that is neither urgent nor of considerable importance and generally of little to no concern for the business. However, though false alarms can distract us from the things that matter most, it does not mean they can always be ignored. Discretion must be applied when deciding upon the proper way to dispatch false alarms. For example, the ramblings of a chronic complainer are very time consuming. This is not an urgent matter, and the level of importance is probably suspect as well, however, these ramblings may have a considerable impact upon fellow employees and could result in more serious consequences at some point in time. A false alarm—well, yes, but important all the same. On the other hand, an unsubstantiated rumor can effectively be discredited and ignored, without considerable effort.

Regardless of the origin, it is important to be able to discern the false alarms from the real thing. True fires demand a timely and thorough response; false alarms may require further attention, but they are not urgent, and so you need to learn to prioritize them so that they do not interfere with your ability to manage the important things in a timely manner.

More important, staff must be encouraged to deal with false alarms before rallying the troops to support them. A false alarm often becomes a multialarm fire because others are drawn into the fray. Encourage staff to interpret and act upon the false alarms rather than fanning the flames.

Since false alarms do occur, learn to distinguish them from the real fires, and promptly dispatch those which require no further action. In those cases where further action is required, allocate time when matters of greater priority will not be compromised. In the meantime, it is a good idea that you do not let the false alarms discourage you—after all, they are as much a part of life as death and taxes.

An Ounce of Prevention

An important workplace goal is to reduce the incidence of real fires and to manage the intrusion of false alarms. This effort is the responsibility of all members of the workplace team. It is also a formidable task that should be put into perspective.

Reducing the incidence of fires is an achievable goal, as is the ability to speed your response time and to improve your fire management skills. But outright prevention? Let’s be realistic about this. There are matters that are under your control and some that are not. Outright prevention is, like perfection, a goal to strive for, but it is beyond your grasp. Besides, if you prevented all of the fires, what would become of your crisis management skills?

Make every effort to reduce the incidence of fires, and prepare your teams to manage fires when they do occur. In an effort to accomplish these goals, encourage staff to be vigilant for smoldering fires that can be managed before they spread. Define processes through which fires are managed and ensure that staff are fully aware of and actively engaged in these processes. Furthermore, provide clear expectations so that all staff are able to take steps to prevent the formation of uncontrolled fires. Finally, acknowledge those whose vigilance has paid off, and learn from their achievements.

Managing workplace alarms and fires is critical to maintaining a smooth and efficient work environment. Learning to distinguish false from true alarms, effectively managing real fires, and, where possible, preventing fires is the responsibility of every manager and staff member.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit http://www.selfgrowth.com/greatways3.html

Author's Bio: 

Since 1996, Ed Drozda has facilitated the success of businesses of all sizes through effective management of comprehensive projects and strategically delivered business/executive coaching. As a project manager, he has worked with major pharmaceutical, medical device manufacturing, and blood collection companies. As a business/executive coach, Ed enjoys working with dynamic executives and business owners who seek to develop and grow their businesses. Ed partners with clients to negotiate the tortuous path to success by focusing on clarity, strategy, and synergy. He challenges and leads his clients to bring their goals to fruition while discovering and exploiting their inherent strengths. Visit him on the Web at http://www.4eandd.com.