Though the many dire consequences are well known (low morale, lowered productivity, lack of creativity, decreased innovation, lack of motivation…) we still frequently encounter corporate and institutional “cultures of fear”.
If you’ve ever worked in a culture of fear you already know how unpleasant and unproductive they can be. And it’s also likely you have witnessed other symptoms such as an exodus of top talent. However, there is one critical symptom that is often overlooked, and it is just as damaging: Increased productivity. Here’s why.
Commonly people caught up in a fear culture are afraid of losing their job. In an effort to ensure they demonstrate how valuable they are to the organization some respond by increasing their output, which they accomplish through increased delivery speed. Their rationale is, “if I get a lot done, and I deliver things more quickly than others, they’ll know how valuable I am… and I won’t be next to go” (…“I won’t be the one that gets yelled at this week”…).
Tragically, that mindset often shifts an employee’s operational posture from “Ready! Aim! Fire!” to “Fire! Aim! Ready!” As you may have guessed, in a fire-first mindset, speed can trump quality.
In my experience, the frequency with which speed “wins” increases over time. (Incidentally, I am referring here to the quality of any type of work, from an email or written report to more substantive output.)
It’s not only quality that can be lost when this happens. Other critical things such as the relevance of the output, or its value to the organization can also be lost. High quality, irrelevant work is still of no value to a business or institution. You can see where this leads — to a very busy, irrelevant employee delivering a lot of output (“highly productive”) that is of little or no value to the organization. Furthermore, others often interpret this type of behavior as a lack of confidence or competence. The latter becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unfortunately, this type of behavior can also be infectious. Coworkers who are witness to light-speed fire-first turnaround will often adopt the fire-first posture; even when they are not “afraid”. When that happens the result is an extremely busy, irrelevant team; or at the very least a team that is not realizing its full potential.
Symptoms of a fire-first culture can be obvious, and are often most noticeable with the “small things”. Rapid-fire email exchanges after hours (weekends, 3 AM…) related to matters that are not urgent are often a sign. Unnecessary apologies regarding “slow responses” to requests that were clearly not of an urgent nature, and that were not “slow” by any rational person’s definition…. But they are not always so obvious.
It gets better. (OK, perhaps not.) More and more I have seen external pressures (economic pressure on an entire industry or in a geographic region…) drive fire-first behavior in teams that had otherwise healthy cultural norms.
Fire-first cultures can end careers… or teams… or companies. They must be addressed head on, and the earlier they are cured, the less the infection will spread.
Have you witnessed a fire-first culture? What were the causes? How did you repair it? I would be grateful if you share your experience.