Fighting Fire: 8 Tips to Prevent Organizational Arson

fire flame courtesy pixabay

“The lure of the job of a volunteer firefighter certainly isn’t the pay — there is none. They train for hundreds of hours, then often go back to their small communities and do nothing. “There’s a boredom element to it,” Hinds-Aldrich said. Many offenders see their actions as helping the community. They believe they are providing chances to train, a chance for the firefighters to have some fun. They often target grasslands or derelict, empty buildings.” ~ San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2013

It’s a sad reality that wildfires and arson appear to go hand in hand. I recently watched a documentary about the largest wildfire in Colorado history, the Hayman Fire. This fire ultimately caused an enormous amount of damage, burning over 138,000 acres.

Investigators traced the blaze to a small campfire that burned out of control on a hot, dry summer day. An 18-year veteran of the Forest Service was on fire watch in that day and claimed she noticed the blaze and attempted to stop it from spreading but to no avail. It seemed pretty straightforward. Careless campfires are the culprit in many such disasters.

Just ask Smokey.

Something here wasn’t quite right, however. Evidence unearthed at the site led to suspicion that arson might be involved. As investigators probed deeper into the evidence, and into the story of the Forestry Technician, a different reality emerged.

Turns out the very person who committed to preserving the forest had initiated its destruction. But why?

She claimed to have set the fire accidentally while burning a letter in anger that she received from her estranged husband. Yet, some of those involved in the case suspected there was a different motive. They believed she set the fire to draw attention to herself. To be the hero. To finally gain some recognition after 18 years on the team.

We may never know. Maybe she doesn’t even really know what was going on in her head that day. Ultimately she pleaded guilty to causing the fire and was sentenced to prison.

Ever experienced an organizational wildfire? Or maybe smaller fires that seemed unusual, unnecessary or unexpected?

Organizational fires are a source of renewal. Some fires start naturally, through forces beyond our control. They burn away the old cultural habits, ineffective programs, and tired structures so we can move in a new, healthier direction.

But there is another kind of fire. One that consumes without purpose. When we take a closer look at the events and examine the source of these fires, the evidence leads to someone holding a match.

Strangely enough, we find that these are people who care a great deal about the organization but they get caught up in an agenda or emotion that moves them to act in ways that are ultimately detrimental.

Perhaps they thought it would be OK to create a small fire. One they could start and then smother, but it ultimately grew out of their control. Even when these fires are manageable they consume time and resources that could be spent on more productive efforts.

So why would otherwise good team members, (and leaders), choose to start a fire?

  • To be recognized
  • To be the hero
  • To be the victim
  • To get payback
  • To vent frustration
  • To prove their value
  • To be heard
  • To create excitement

To create a problem just so they can fix it, a person must believe they will accomplish something they cannot achieve through preventing the problem in the first place.

Organizations unwittingly reinforce this behavior by putting firefighters on a pedestal. We have a habit of rewarding the people who come to the rescue and forgetting the people who press on, without much fanfare, to keep things running smoothly and quietly.

A higher risk exists in cultures where speaking up is frowned upon, jobs are stripped of autonomy, creativity, and flexibility and leadership ignores the concerns of employees.

Fires also start where smoldering conflict is left untended until sparks and kindling come in contact. In this case, the fire is created not for personal benefit but to cause harm to another person or team within the organization.

Consider these ideas for lowering your fire risk:

  • Review how the problem started not just how it was solved.
  • Be careful how you represent and reward firefighting.
  • Publicly appreciate the people who prevent problems.
  • Provide challenging and interesting work experiences.
  • Notice and address patterns of behavior that indicate a fire risk.
  • Listen for keywords like “unfair”, “bored”, “unappreciated”.
  • Attend to brewing conflicts and seek a healthy resolution.
  • Act on the issues and frustrations presented by your team.

Remember, only you can prevent organizational fires.

Start a Conversation