Does Your Nonprofit Suffer from Fire Drill Culture? | Beth's Blog

Does Your Nonprofit Suffer from Fire Drill Culture?

Happy Healthy Nonprofit, Leadership

Flickr Photo by Gavin St. Ours

Last week, I was honored to do several workshops  hosted by the Fund for Santa Barbara on how nonprofits can link a culture of well being to outcomes based on my book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.

The workshop includes a facilitated process based on the “World Cafe” method where participants work in small groups to discuss the challenges in the workplace and how to address them.  They capture their discussion by taking notes on the “tablecloths,”  (in this case, it is flip chart paper).

One of the topics includes stress triggers in the workplace.   As I do this in different places around the world with different types of nonprofits, different themes bubble up.   In Santa Barbara, a common theme was that their nonprofits operated in “Crisis Mode” all the time and it has created a culture of stress.

Crisis As Workplace Culture

Crisis mode happens for a variety of reasons. First, there are social service agencies that work with people in crisis and it becomes part of the workplace culture.  Also, staff exposed indirectly to trauma through hearing about the difficult experiences of the people they serve or “secondary trauma”  can lead to burnout or “compassion fatigue.”

People who work in this environment often feel they can’t take time off or practice self-care because if they do their client will suffer.    But, in this type of work, it is critical to incorporate self-care in order to sustain oneself and to serve clients better.

One technique is to weave self-care into your workday .  Rather than having self-care be something “outside” of work, it can be integrated naturally into the course of the workday.  Self care is highly customized to the person, but the trick is to think of it more broadly than physical health and incorporate micro moments of self-care or #boringselfcare.  Maybe its going outside for a ten minute walk or closing your eyes for a few minutes to meditate.

It is also important to become hyper self-aware of when you are not practicing self-care.   Identify your PCI: Personal Chaos Index or when your work is out of balance and you’re not taking the time to smell the roses.

In the workplace, especially where staff may be subject to secondary trauma, it is important to create some physical space that is quiet and calm, like a meditation or quiet room.  Or have coloring books or other fun stuff in the break room.

Crisis mode also happens when there is a lack of planning and prioritizing and everything is important! As projects get more complex or your organization is trying to accomplish more with less resources, it gets harder to accomplish without more intentional planning.

Look ahead rituals can build space into your schedule.  Having a staff retreat on an annual basis to map out large projects is also a good idea and anticipating monthly or quarterly key deadlines can minimize stress.    There is even a “look ahead” template for Excel that make this type of planning easier to do.

Look ahead rituals can even be as simple as encouraging staff to take 20-30 minutes on Mondays to look at their week and different deadlines.  Also, it is important to having ongoing communication when priorities shift and be able to ask and answer the question, “What is the most important deliverable on this list of ten things that we need to do today?”

There is also “Fire Drill Leadership” as defined in this article as a shrill voice or tone that makes everything an emergency when it isn’t.

The article describes the reasons why operating like this all the time is not a good idea:

1. An actual emergency is not given proper urgency
2. Leader loses credibility
3. Organization loses focus
4. Culture becomes one of detachment and disengagement
5. Roles become murky

It also creates stress and burnout. So, the big question, how do you prevent this or turn it around?

Fires are urgent but unimportant activities that are not a part of your organization’s plan, but require a resource investment.  It is your reaction to the fire that needs to change.   When a fire pops up, the reaction is a flurry of unplanned activity that usurps everyone’s attention and time.  That reaction needs to be replaced with a phrase like, “Let’s think this through.”

The phrase reminds people not to just react to the fire, but to consider it relative to other planned initiatives currently being worked on.  Do really needs to attend to this?  Does this fall within our responsibilities?  Is solving this fire now mission critical?  Who can handle this more efficiently? How did this fire start in the first place? How can we prevent it?

You can control the fire by addressing it once and analyze why it is happening or determine and eliminate the root cause through problem solving.   One approach is to harness your inner change maker, and lead a session with your staff on analyzing the problem.   Here’s a process that you can use at a staff meeting.

Or if you are a manager and need to manage an employee who thinks everything is urgent, here’s some tips.

How does your organization avoid crisis mode and fire drills?


3 Responses

  1. […] What it looks like: The fire-drill culture was originally introduced to me by Beth Kanter in her excellent blog post: Does Your Nonprofit Suffer from Fire Drill Culture? […]

  2. […] don’t despair. Even if you have a fire drill culture in your organization, it doesn’t mean you can’t work to counteract this dynamic by […]

  3. Hugh Knowles says:

    So what happens if that crisis mode is not driven immediate social context or by Fire Drill Leadership but rather by long term external context. Any organisation working on Climate Breakdown or collapse of biodiversity for example is constantly reminded of the crisis they are working on and therefore always in the mindset. It can be very traumatic.

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