Fire Drills at Work

The alarm starts blaring and your entire 5th grade class covers their ears and then promptly lines up to quickly exit the building without talking and staying in a single-file line, to go to your designated spot in the parking lot for roll call. That’s a fire drill… right?

Until you grow up, get a job (or create your own job), and learn that your definition of a fire drill is vastly different than the ones in real life. At work, not everything can be planned in advance, nor work out perfectly – I’d say that would be dreamy, but really it would be boring. But when you get an urgent email telling you that something happened and needs to be dealt with RIGHT.THIS.MINUTE, you take a deep breath and say, “Here goes another fire drill.”

Fire Drills at Work are Painful

I wish I could share all of the fire drills that I’ve had at work, but the list is too long to remember. There was the one time that my boss approved an ad with the wrong hospital name associated with it, and it ran front and center in The New York Times. Another one occurred when an employee broke into the CEO’s personal residence and spent the night. Or perhaps I should share the time when an employee I just had to let go, due to sexual harassment, locked himself in the executive-floor bathroom?

Most fire drills that we encounter at work aren’t as BIG as the examples above. Usually it is a forgotten detail, or a person who wasn’t looped in, or a missed deadline, or a confusion of duties. A majority of the time, fire drills aren’t that serious – even if your heart starts pumping fast and the adrenaline is freely flowing.

Fire drills annoy me. I’m sure they annoy you too. But how you manage fire drills in your career, is a critical skill as you advance. Most CEO’s I know, are excellent fire-fighters… not necessarily tactical geniuses.

How to Put Out the Fire

1. Ask yourself, “Is this really a big deal or is it being blow out of proportion?”

They saying, “Your fire does not create my fire drill,” holds true. I’m not saying be a jerk about the situation, but just because someone else is panicking over something, does not mean that you need to. In fact, most of other people’s fire drills fall into this category. When it’s your problem, you will be the person thinking this is a HUGE deal.

Check yourself before creating a plan or taking action. If it IS a big deal, such as the examples I shared above, then it needs to be prioritized to the top of your list. If it is less impactful, still prioritize it, but your reaction should be vastly different.

2. Analyze the situation and impact.

This is an old PR/crisis communications trick. You must know exactly what you are dealing with, in order to be able to minimize the damage. Before you start responding to emails, getting your blood pressure up, or taking action – give yourself a mini-pause, to answer these questions:

  • How widespread is this situation?
  • How will the business/person be impacted by this?
  • What are three different ways to solving the situation?
  • What types of communication and actions are needed to rectify the situation?
  • Am I truly the best person to handle the situation?

3. Don’t throw water on the flames if you need an extinguisher.

The last thing you want to do is make the situation worse. In a high-intensity situation, our decision-making skills aren’t always at their highest standard. Fully think through your next action.

In the misprinted ad above for example, the knee-jerk reaction is to apologize to the client and start promising the world to make it better, all while hiding under your desk. But will an apology when it is so fresh, do anything except rub salt in the wound? Are you authorized to provide the world to the client?

Your innocent and helpful actions can easily make things worse without intending to. Fully understand the various angles of your response and the players, before trouble-shooting.

4. What does the client want to offset the fire?

In a fire drill, most people forget to ask this question – and yet, it is the most important one to ask. Whether it’s your boss or an external client, when an urgent demand is presented to you, be sure to ask what the desired result is for them.

In the breaking and entering example, my desired result was to fire the employee (long story) and have him arrested. If I would have acted on my fire-extinguishing plan, I could have been the one without a job! The CEO had a different plan in mind, really just a pre-amble to my plan, but it was critical to him to feel as though the situation was handled.

5. Post-fire investigation.

As annoying as fire drills can be, it irks me more to continue to encounter the same drills over and over again. After every fire drill – big or small, investigate what happened and why it happened, so you don’t have to deal with it again. Where’s the fun in fighting the same fires?

In my bathroom-hiding example, not only was it extremely embarrassing (hello – me standing outside of the men’s bathroom with the C-suite looking on trying to plead with him to come out), but it was potentially dangerous to all of the people on the floor. Once it was over, our team met with security to discuss a new process to eliminate this type of fire for good.

Make sure you create or update any needed systems or double-checks or policies that failed you during this process. And then have a nice drink, so you can fight another fire tomorrow.