5 Ways to Help Your Team Overcome Fire-Drill Mode 

There is something thrilling and satisfying when your team is given what seems like an impossible deadline and they crush it. You and your team beat the odds and still did awesome work. High fives all around! But what if putting out fires is all your team is doing? What if you’re always scrambling from one rushed deadline to another, with your team stuck in fire-drill mode?

If this sounds familiar, you may be seeing signs of burnout in your team – frayed nerves, short tempers, costly mistakes – and you’re reading this because you want to fix the problems you see looming.

I see a lot of teams (especially creative, marketing and IT teams) stuck on the emergency-response treadmill. They usually know it’s not sustainable. From RallyBright’s work with hundreds of high-performance teams here’s what we’ve learned about helping teams break out of short-term fire fighting and start looking at the big picture.

Yes, it’s a thrill, but…

Doing what seems impossible and being the hero feels awesome, no question. You’re a team of rockstars who do the amazing and make it look easy. Once in a while this is no problem. After all, things come up at the last minute – that’s life. Being able to quickly adapt and conquer a challenge is a sign of a powerful, engaged and resilient team.

But it’s important that once in a while doesn’t become all the time. Research shows that people who are constantly stuck in fight-or-flight mode get sick more and need longer to recover; their long-term performance also suffers. Stress at work is a leading cause of absenteeism and that costs teams in real productivity and real dollars. Some members of your team might thrive on stress, but others may quickly feel burnout. If you’re a leader who thrives on stress, you may be inadvertently steering your team into the rocks and keeping them mired in fire-drill mode.

1. Look back to assess where you’ve been

One of the statements we see in our research that is a hallmark of the over-stressed team is “We are stuck in the short term, we don’t discuss long-term impact.” People need the consistency and stability that a clearly defined long-term direction of a team (and company) brings.

One of the best ways to start building that long-term view is pausing to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. When working through any challenge, it’s easy to over-focus on how far you have to go. Your attitude changes when you recognize the progress you’ve made. “Wow, we’re more than halfway there. Look, we got over that hurdle by problem-solving together.”

Looking back is also about seeing what didn’t work so well and learning how to avoid that problem in the future. Knowing what to avoid on the road ahead is just as important as relishing what you’ve accomplished. As a team, recognizing the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the journey are the foundations of building your team’s long-term direction.

2. Just say no

There are times when we all recognize that we should have said no in the first place. For whatever reason, we instead ignored the little voice that said, “don’t do it, you need to say no,” and were stuck doing a project or task we shouldn’t have accepted, once again in fire-drill mode.

One of the best ways to break out of that cycle is to simply and politely, say: “No, we’re overcommitted. If you had asked us last week we could have assigned resources to help, but this is not enough time. Let’s figure out how to solve this for you differently now and set ourselves up to be more successful in the future.”

Imagine how good it would feel to know you didn’t just sign you and your team up for another grueling project. Your team will almost certainly thank you. And here’s the important part: you can’t say no arbitrarily. You need a rationale and reasoning behind it. The easiest way to to that is setting some ground rules for you and your team, which leads us to…

3. Set some ground rules

You and your team might not be creating your crises directly. Often these last-minute demands come from outside your team. Does sales ask for new marketing materials the same week they are heading to a big conference? Does marketing demand all new creative for ads with a couple days’ notice?

Your gut tells you these are unreasonable deadlines. You agonize over how to even tell your top designer to stay late, especially with a sick child at home. To meet these deadlines, people will need to pull extra hours (which means less downtime to recharge). You know this is bad for your team. So why are you still accepting these deadlines that have you all scrambling again into fire-drill mode?

You and your team need to know what projects and deadlines are coming, and how they fit within the bigger picture. Sometimes this means drawing a line in the sand, creating structured processes and clearly defining how much lead time is needed for each kind of task. Acknowledge when last-minute things come up, other things will need to be delayed. You might have to get buy-in from above and it might be hard to stay firm to your needs. But your team will thank you and your overall team performance will improve.

4. Stop being the hero every time

You know those people in the office who are the “go-to” people for, well, everything? Ask Sue to do it, she rocks those reports. Send that slide deck to Vishant, he has the touch with PowerPoint.

If you’re the go-to person, you may think you’re being a team player. But the reality is that you’re often doing yourself, your team and your company a disservice. Other people need to hone their skills and share the load. They also deserve the chance to push themselves and take on new challenges. Give yourself a break and let other people handle some of the work. There’s a good chance you have important work that needs doing that’s not getting done while you’re heroically saving the day in fire-drill mode where another person could be up-leveling their own skills and status.

5. Look forward

With ground rules in place and workloads distributed, your team can pause and reflect on what projects you’d like to be doing. You can look at strategic plans and see how you fit in. You could even have a team offsite morning session to work on these plans and then have fun in the afternoon to blow off steam. But one of the most important things you and your team can do is have weekly Friday check-ins.

These aren’t traditional update meetings, they are true check-in meetings. What went well during the week? What didn’t work out? What’s the plan for next week? Is anything keeping team members up at night? Honestly answering these questions can illuminate a better way forward.

If your team is using project management software, everyone should have a good idea of where projects stand. What those updates don’t always tell you is how people are doing. Friday check-ins help you find and fix problems before they become big problems. The meetings are a time to unwind a bit, reflect and see how things could be better.

Start changing the status quo today

It may not feel like it, but only you can prevent fire-drill mode from becoming the business as usual of your work life. Whether you get a thrill from it or are being drained of every last drop of energy, the first step is recognizing that it may be how things are now, but it doesn’t have to be how they remain.

High-performance teams know and live this truth. You can break the cycle of jumping from one fire to another with planning, boundaries and some reflection on what it takes to make work work better for everyone. Only then can you get away from the stress of constant urgency and move towards a considered approach to high performance.

Want to see for yourself how RallyBright helps teams achieve more while feeling good? Sign up for a free demo of our research-based team dynamics software.