We have a big problem in our organizational cultures of rewarding the heroic people. It’s so reassuring to see someone hustle and grind and save the day. I had a client tell me the story of an IT guy who had to fix a critical issue on his wedding day. (That’s just wrong!) There is a big problem with celebrating heroes. We reward firefighting and last minute, death-defying rescues when the people getting the recognition for the heroics are often the one’s whose short-term, haphazard, slap-dash approach started the fire in the first place. It’s time we stopped rewarding arsonists for putting out fires.

Putting Out Fires

What do I mean when I say, “Putting Out Fires?” Well, here are some examples:

  • A proposal is getting sent out to the customer tomorrow at 8am and Bob stays up until 2am fixing the crappy first draft
  • A piece of buggy code gets released in Beta and Mr. Fix-It saves the day by single-handedly finding and fixing the bad code
  • One of your best employees threatens to quit and her manager makes the last-minute save and convinces her to stay
  • A senior leader has to run around at the last-minute collecting presentations for your sales kickoff, stay up until the wee hours formatting everything to the branded template

Senior leaders are notorious for celebrating these people. Our heroes get recognition at the company gala, they get mentions in the all-hands meetings, they get shout-outs in the celebratory emails that go out when the company accomplishes something noteworthy. They are heralded for putting out the fire.

Do you have a firefighting culture? I’m not saying it’s always wrong to celebrate the heroics. It’s fine to celebrate a last-minute save every once in a while. The problem is when it becomes the norm. If every project succeeds by the narrowest of margins, you have something to fret about, not to celebrate. Are any of these hallmarks of your team?

  • Poor planning: people who don’t invest the time up front to think about all the moving parts and to create a game plan that will get you to the finish line on time.
  • Poor coordination: team members working in siloes and focusing on their own piece of the puzzle without setting up the rest of the team for success.
  • Poor pacing: people starting the work too late and leaving no margin for error.
  • Poor communication: people failing to set clear expectations of what was needed up front.
  • Poor quality control: supervisors letting work out the door without spending the time to check its quality and completeness.
  • Poor monitoring: managers allowing work to go unsupervised until the last minute.
  • Poor accountability: conscientious people ensuring that others never feel the negative consequences of messing up, so they have little motivation to do things right the first time.

You can probably think of many others. The point is that firefighting is often required only because the person either set the fire or created the kindling that made the flare-up inevitable. And as long as you keep celebrating the people who put out the fires, they have absolutely no reason to change their negligent behavior.

Three Ways to Stop Rewarding Arsonists

Reward Planners

Make a deliberate effort to identify and call-out examples of excellent planning. Share the templates, processes, and thought processes that your best planners are using to set projects up for success from the start.

Tone Down the Celebrations

When someone saves the day and your first instinct is to throw a parade, stop and think about what got you in the position to need to be rescued. In the example above, if your best employee is threatening to leave because her manager neglects her in favor of dealing with the problem children, don’t be too lavish in your praise when he convinces her not to quit.

If you do want to celebrate the daring rescue, at least balance the feedback with some comment about the cause of the problem in the first place. For example, “Avasham, I saw that you were here really late last night fixing the presentations for today. I’m grateful that you made sure we were in good shape for the big kickoff. I’ll be disappointed if we are in the same situation again. What could you do differently next time so that everything is ready 48 hours in advance?”

Watch for Hot Spots

When the immediate crisis is averted, turn your attention to other spots where there’s dry powder ready to ignite. Which other projects are suffering from insufficient planning? Who is dragging their feet and putting other people’s timelines at risk? Where would a little more attention from you increase the stakes and the willingness to move things along at a better pace? Pay attention to prevention.

One more thought…

It’s possible that your fire fighters and arsonists are different people. If that’s the case, you’re making life miserable for your heroes and making life comfortable for the bad guys. That’s not a winning formula. You’ll need to get much more vigilant about planning, context setting, quality control, and accountability. Be very direct in your feedback to those who created the problem. Make sure your arsonists start to feel some of the heat.

If you’re interested, I provide an in-depth look at how to improve planning and reduce the unpleasant effects of firefighting in my new book The Good Fight.

Further Reading

How to increase accountability

Are you too busy to be curious?

How far in the weeds are you?