“Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 26:20) You have likely heard the expression, “There is no fire without a spark.” Something causes these fires. According to www.borealforest.org, forest fires are either naturally caused or humanly caused. Natural fires are commonly started by lightning, and human-caused fires are usually triggered by several reasons, including smoking, recreation, equipment, and “miscellaneous.” Human-caused fires constitute the higher percentage of forest fires, but natural fires constitute the more significant majority of the total area burned. The reason for this is that human-caused fires are usually detected early and are typically contained easily. In comparison, natural fires can burn for hours before being seen. “Human-caused” fires appear to be caused by carelessness or not tending to a critical malfunction. I wonder, if people were more careful, paid more attention to surroundings, and regularly checked to ensure everything was running smoothly if there would be a significant decrease in the number of fires. I cannot help but think of the analogy of “putting out fires at work.” If we were consistently more careful with what we said and how we said it, paid more attention to the people around us and were more sensitive to what was being done around us if we could prevent sparking an offensive, damaging, and unproductive reaction or situation. As per forest fires, there are many things that we can be doing to prevent having to “put out fires at work.” There will be, however, situations we may not be able to foresee or control. COVID 19 would be one example. It has caused many unusual circumstances and numerous extensive disruptions, and we have felt we were running from one new situation to the next. A sudden change in regulation or legislation would also cause a business to be putting out unforeseen fires of employee anxiety and urgent policy changes. However, human errors can ignite disorganization, last-minute situations, and continued stress leading to wasted energy and resources spent putting out these fires. And, these are the fires that can often be prevented. The issue is to determine what sparks them. And miscommunication is a familiar spark. Miscommunication can often spark circumstances where things need to be dealt with quickly to not get out of control. If you look back and thoroughly analyze an intense situation, you may see that poor communication is a common cause. Last week, I had a case at work when someone was accused of poorly handling a situation. This triggered a response of “needing to put out a fire,” so it did not escalate. Although I needed to deal with how a person was treated, I also needed to determine why things were said. As I spoke to others involved (which took their time and mine from other scheduled duties), I could see that a miscommunication several months ago was the spark for this heated response. If this had been clearly communicated earlier and followed up, then this” “fire may not have occurred. This did not excuse how someone was spoken to, but I could see why it happened and wanted to prevent a similar circumstance from occurring again. In this situation, following up with this schedule change would have likely prevented this. If poor communication is sparking ongoing disagreements that need to be resolved, hurt feelings that need to be addressed, or repeated discussions on how something is not up to standards, it is time to review your communication strategy. Consider the following eight practical approaches that will help to prevent wasted time putting out fires caused by a lack of communication or misunderstandings in communication:
Are you holding regular staff meetings to ensure everyone is aware of new policies and procedures? If some people cannot attend, then make sure you are recording the session to send to them and/or sending out minutes of the meeting.
Are you providing opportunities for all your staff to give input on how they can best do their job so you can decrease the possibility of things getting out of control for them? If you notice that some people are not as vocal, try to approach them separately and ask them.
Are you providing opportunities for all your staff to ask questions about things that are unclear to them to avoid work being done incorrectly? Sometimes, people may not know of a policy change. Ensure that you speak with them as soon as you notice something being performed poorly, no matter how small it may seem.
Are you providing opportunities for all staff to express their concerns regarding any policy changes? Change is usually difficult, but it is often less stressful when people can share their concerns. This allows everyone to problem solve.
Are you following up with new policies, procedures, and changes and asking staff if they have any questions or concerns? Make sure you follow up in your regular staff meetings and also if you start to see something “falling through the cracks.”
Do you measure your business metrics so you can quickly see if something is not functioning well? If something is just “smoldering,” it is best to address it as soon as possible.
Are you individually speaking to people about anything that they feel can be improved? Open communication in all areas not only improves efficiency but also job satisfaction.
Are people with similar job responsibilities meeting to discuss what is working well, what needs to be improved, and following up with quality improvement projects? Meeting together is often much more efficient and satisfying than many emails and messages going back and forth.
The way to prevent, or decrease the frequency of “putting out fires at work, is to detect problems early. This week, consider your workplace’s communication strategies and see if there is room for improvement. We hope you will also share your ideas on what works well for you! May God richly bless you this week as you communicate with wisdom, direction, professionalism, and grace. Have a great week! Bonny, Christian Women at Work