Large, small, or something in the middle, a business is a team effort. Everyday operations rely on a complex web of departments, employees, work, and solutions to function effectively, but all too often, those within higher management positions try to do it all single-handedly.
Not only does this contribute to additional (and unnecessary) personal stress, it’s also incredibly inefficient — forcing you into a constant loop of doing stuff but never fully completing anything. Want to move past this and run a more effective company? Read on to discover how you can break out of this cycle, stop merely putting out the proverbial fires, and master the art of delegation.
Managers Aren’t Firefighters (Unless You Choose to Be)
Management is not the same as a more general position. Your goal is not anxiously chipping away at a million small to-do items, nor should it be to provide solutions or workarounds that employees have been struggling with lately.
The whole reason you’re here is to — well — manage: find ways to keep employees focused and motivated, assign the right people to the right work, implement changes to increase the efficiency of daily operations, and so on.
However, even the best managers sometimes stray from this path and put far too much on their plates, some of which weren’t in their job descriptions, to begin with.
That may seem like the hallmark of a hard worker or a kind gesture, yet it often does more harm than good. The reason is that managers operating from this perspective simply aren’t going to be dialed into any one task.
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Instead, they’re going to flitter around from one thing to another, working broadly rather than deeply to get a start on all their various projects. Nothing gets completed when this happens, turning what would, in the right circumstances, be productive activities into something actively problematic.
As explained in a crisis management article written by the Harvard Business Review, this makes “serious problem-solving efforts degenerate into quick-and-dirty patching… [and] managing becomes a constant juggling act of deciding where to allocate overworked people and which incipient crisis to ignore for the moment.”
Managers then inevitably enter a sort of firefighting loop — endlessly ignoring tasks to fix the issues caused by such inattention — and that prevents them from leading as they should.
Do You Enjoy Firefighting?
As you can probably tell, such firefighting puts the entire business in danger, risking much more than just the manager’s own comfort. However, before you start placing blame, know that it’s not just their fault.
While these team leaders do put this burden on themselves, they’re not the only culprits. Their supervisors and employees play a huge role, too, as they frequently imagine these managers to be the ones best suited to resolve problems and are usually all-too-happy to give voice to that opinion. This creates a great deal of pressure for managers, which usually pushes them to take on issues and projects beyond their responsibilities.
No manager really wants to put this kind of chaos on their shoulders. They just don’t feel like they have much of a choice, assuming that there might be too many factors or obstacles for others’ to handle things or worrying that they might be perceived as “lazy” or “unfair” by delegating tasks.
They then decide to take the path of least resistance, opting to do it all on their own, and it’s no wonder why. We instinctively want to avoid disappointing people, to avoid the feelings of fear and overwhelm, and loss of control that comes from letting someone else help us.
Regardless of how hard it is, though, managers in the midst of constant firefighting have to switch things up. Don’t know where to start? The HBR has some pretty solid advice.
“For the senior leader to start delegating and stick with it,” the article reads, “he needs to address these feelings, challenge his own assumptions about ‘what if,’ and try small, low-risk delegation experiments to see whether his assumptions are rooted in the truth or in his desire for safety.”
Naturally, following this guidance is going to be hard. Challenging our own viewpoints and emotions is never easy. But since firefighting is the direct confidence of allowing these to reign over one’s decisions, you must be willing to face it head-on. After all, it’s the only way out of this perpetual loop.
Changing the Narrative
Roger Bohn said it best: in most U.S. organizations, the hero is the one who puts out the biggest fires. But we don’t want to reward this behavior — not anymore. Firefighting may appear to be productive and respectable, but it’s incredibly damaging at its core.
All firefighting does is ensure that you have more problems than you do time, that they continually recur and cascade and that any solutions you may develop are always left half-baked. And not only this, it kicks importance to the side in favor of urgency, allowing what could’ve been small issues to grow into full crises. In short, it’s not a good way to operate and sends a terrible message to all you’re supposed to manage.
This is why it’s imperative to change the narrative and the best way to do so? Cultivate a delegation attitude and foster a work culture that applauds these efforts.
If you’re skeptical, rest assured that we understand. It seems almost too straightforward and overly simplistic to actually work, and you’d be right — kind of.
The workplace’s appreciation for fire-starting is a complex, multilayered issue. Informed by our cultural obsession with productivity and love for heroics, there’s no way to fully scrub out our want to put out — and see others put out — as many fires as possible. Establishing a personal and company-wide expectation for delegation is an excellent place to start, though.
Asking yourself questions like “who else could do this?” “What guidance do they need to succeed?” and others from the Society for Human Resource Management’s Delegator’s Dozen list can go a long way in this quest.
As they say, however, there is no better way to learn than by doing. Thus, our biggest tip is to automate your task delegation whenever possible, and monitor progress through daily meetings and review tasks. Download our 10 Point Guide to Extreme Goal Alignment, and we’ll walk you through the practical steps one-by-one, addressing how to get your superiors on board, assign tasks, address comments, and beyond.
One person does not make a company, but those of us in managerial positions frequently forget this, pinning too much of the work on ourselves alone. This adds up to us constantly putting out fires that we inadvertently started, hurting ourselves and the business’ bottom line. But the solution is simple: share the workload and delegate more.
By removing the rewards given to firefighting, providing easy solutions for systemized delegation, and cultivating a delegation attitude, we can finally stop creating incomplete solutions and start becoming the leaders our companies need us to be.