Extinguish Your Workplace Root Fires, Not Just Brush Fires

In a forest, brush fires start from root fires.

Have you ever thought of your workplace like a forest? 

As a leader in your workplace, one of your greatest responsibilities is cultivating a healthy, productive work environment for your team. Part of that is being able to identify and address the various workplace “fires” that can ignite and spread dysfunction through your organization.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the many crises that come up within the workplace can be compared to different types of fires… and just like a fire, workplace crises can quickly spread out of control if not correctly addressed. 

In this blog, we’ll discuss the types of fires that can ignite in our organizations, why they happen, and what leaders can do to stop the cycle of putting out brush fires. If you’re tired of putting out brush fires every day and you’re ready to address the root fires of your organization, read on!

Types of Workplace Fires

Just like a forest, there are many “fires” that cause disruption within our workplace environment. If you can understand the symptoms of crisis, friction, or unrest in your organization, you can better address the problems 

Brush Fires

Your workplace brush fires are the small, sometimes daily nuisances that you experience in the office. Workplace brush fires might manifest as:

  • Workplace gossip
  • Absenteeism/tardiness
  • Frequent complaints
  • Shallow relationships
  • Reactive responses to stress
  • Negativity or passivity towards completing tasks

While these fires typically seem like less pressing issues that are easy to address, they actually represent something much more serious. While you can get busy dealing with these issues, the temptation is to avoid what’s beneath the surface.

In a forest, when you see a brush fire, this usually means there’s a fire underneath the surface. Similarly, these surface-level issues reflect deeper, more concerning issues within a workplace environment. 

Root Fires

Root fires are the underlying, unresolved issues with how certain aspects of an organization interact with one another. These include a workplace’s systemic issues. The longer that these issues go unaddressed, the deeper and farther into the organization the “fire” spreads. 

Unlike highly visible brush fire problems, these issues are slow burning and persistent, and they require more time, attention, and thoughtfulness to address. These issues cannot be resolved with a simple conversation, a change in policy, or some program training about dealing with conflict, personality clashes, gossip, etc.

In a forest, root fires often cause brush fires. When the burning root gets close to the surface of the ground, it ignites brush fires. In the same way, if you’re seeing a lot of surface-level, personal issues within an organization, it’s because there are deeper, more serious concerns with your workplace, which are reflected in the practices, code of conduct, systems and structures. 

If your team seems to experience the same brush fires all of the time, it’s time for you to start addressing the root fires.

Causes of Workplace Fires

I have been working for decades on helping organizations address and “put out” their workplace fires, and I’ve noticed a few things that consistently create issues within organizations. Let’s address the things that tend to cause commotion in the workplace.  

Unaligned Values

If your team feels uncertain about your company values, this stops them from handling change, crises, or even growth in a calm, confident way. Instead, members of your organization will either respond to these crises out of instinct, or they will respond in a way that only protects their own self-interests. 

Additionally, if you as a leader fail to embody and embrace your company’s values, your team will do the same. How can you expect your team to respond to a crisis in a values-driven way if you also fail to do so? 

For a team that works collaboratively through critical moments, you have to develop a team culture that places the organization’s true values above anything else. Otherwise, things get driven under the ground, which creates larger and longer-term challenges.

Sudden Change

While change can provide an organization with an invaluable opportunity for growth, it can also cause distress, disorganization, and chaos. When presented with unfamiliar situations, people within your organization might react based on instinct instead of responding with reason, confidence, and preparedness. 

Change comes in many forms within an organizational setting! Whether it’s something as simple as change in leadership or the passing of a coworker, change can feel sudden and unexpected, which can cause feelings of unrest and uncertainty. 

Ineffective Systems

Albert Einstein is famously credited for saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

When a crisis occurs within your workplace, do you rely on the same system over and over again? 

If an issue is recurring, whatever solution you have implemented is clearly not working to address the issue at hand. What if instead of trying the same thing over and over again every time the same crisis reoccurs, you took the time to examine your system and find a better way of dealing with things? 

Stop Putting Out Brush Fires! 

If you are tired of constantly putting out brush fires at your workplace, it’s time for you to address the root fires that are igniting below the surface. 

How? Simply put, by a change in mindset. Instead of viewing crisis as something to simply put your head down and power through, you should instead view it as an opportunity for learning and growth. 

In other words, learn to view crises… as Krises instead! The English word crisis comes from the Greek krisis, which means “testing time” or a “contest.” When we view times of hardship or trouble through this lens, krisis means a decision, not merely catastrophe or chaos.

Keep reading, and we’ll discuss multiple ways you can reframe your view of crises for the betterment of yourself and everyone else in your workplace! 

E-VALUE-ate Your Values

What is your company’s purpose, what values do you want individuals to embody, and what behaviors should be expected? These need to be clearly defined, communicated, and modeled from the top-down.

When I talk about organizational values, I mean more than whatever mission statement or values are on your company’s website. These should be real, true, important things that matter and give a sense of purpose to you and your team. 

By prioritizing your company’s values, your team will take agency over their decisions with honesty, integrity, and purpose. When your team is rooted in your company’s values, they will be able to make better decisions when faced with conflict, crisis, and especially with unhappy customers. 

Examine How You Handle Conflict

Change is a common occurrence in any workplace setting. Whether it’s restructuring, new management, sudden loss, or anything in between, you should expect change in your workplace– and with change, you should expect conflict. 

Most people operate under the assumption that conflict is always bad. However, I do not believe this to be the case! Instead, I propose that conflict is simply a situation in which two or more parties disagree on their desires, goals, and concerns. 

When we view conflict through this lens, we find that conflict can provide an excellent opportunity for weighing our values. In any given situation, we must decide whether our goals or our relationships with the involved parties matter to us more. 

Develop Responses, Not Reactions

Every human has a natural, biological response to fear called the “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” response. These are the four primal instincts we fall back on when faced with a crisis; these reactions are instinctual.

How would you like your team to respond if they’re under threat? If you and your team have not come up with a plan for when a crisis hits, they will react instead of responding. 

What do I mean by that? A reaction to fear, crises, or other stimuli is purely instinctual; a response is rehearsed, practiced, and planned. If 

Know When You Need A Break

Sometimes, crisis erupts simply from overwhelm! If the people on your team are working themselves to the bone without adequate rest, they might be experiencing extreme stress or burnout. 

Encourage your team to recharge! By recharge, I do NOT mean taking one vacation a year, nor do I mean spending time scrolling on their phone. True, genuine rest involves doing things that fulfill various needs of yours. Some activities that I personally help me recharge include: 

  • Reading a book
  • Talking to a friend 
  • Mowing the lawn 
  • Spending time volunteering

Whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or relational, try to integrate activities into your life on a weekly (or even daily) basis that allow you to recharge, and encourage your subordinates to do the same! 

Fight Fires at the Root

Addressing root fires in the workplace requires a thoughtful, values-driven approach from organizational leaders. By clearly defining and living by strong organizational values, you can create an environment that is resilient to the types of systemic dysfunction that allow fires to ignite in the first place.

One fact of life is that crises are bound to occur; your goal should not be to try to avoid it completely, but to be prepared to address it when it does. By extinguishing the root fires that ignite in the forest of your workplace, you create a resilient, values-driven team that feels equipped in any situation.

Do you feel overwhelmed by root fires in your organization? Are you sick of putting out brush fires all the time, but you’re not sure where to start? I can help. Let’s talk about how to put out your organization’s root fires and create a more collaborative, positive workplace!

The Fortlog Advantage

Organizations across North America have been benefiting from FORTLOG’s Interpersonal Crisis Management, Coaching & Consulting services for over 30 years, counting on John to help shepherd them through their most challenging storms. Today, a growing number of workplaces benefit from John’s proven strategies, systems and speeches that focus on integrating core-value practices “not just policies and procedures''.

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