Fire Drills, Shit Shows, Smoke & Mirrors: Problems in Company Culture and Leadership

Hilary Corna
4 min readMay 24, 2022

I recently caught up with a Scaling Up Coach, and he told me that in his annual planning with a company they made the statement that “they are firefighters.” His response was “You fight fires for business?” And they said “No, we’re just really good at putting out fires.”

This opens up a larger conversation about what we often see in organizations, which is this: identifying with and thriving in stressful and chaotic situations as if it’s a good thing. Tight deadlines, all-nighters and project crises are becoming a norm when they shouldn’t be.

Hearing your team members use phrases such as “band-aid solutions” and “shit show” are huge red flags. It means they are in a constant state of reacting and prone to doing fire drills in the workplace. “Fire drills” is a term for situations where everyone is expected to stop what they’re working on and respond with speed to a seemingly urgent matter.

There may be rare instances where urgent issues come up that require fire drills, but if this becomes a consistent occurrence in your company, it’s a sign of dysfunction in culture and leadership. When fire drills become your modus operandi, it can lead to burnout and disengaged or disgruntled employees. Moreover, doing fire drills to solve a problem can actually be the problem itself.

So… how do I resolve these problems and extinguish “fire drills”?

How much time, energy, talent, and money have you wasted from these “fire drills” at work?

Fire drills come in many forms. They could be flavor-of-the-month initiatives that aren’t directly correlated with people’s strategic plans or meetings; or they could look like a meeting that requires everyone’s attendance even if they don’t have a direct value to each participant. Whatever fire drills look like, they have the same outcome: taking time away from efforts that could be much more useful elsewhere.

More often than not, fire drills are unnecessary. People just love the expediency of the fire drill process because it gives them a sense of purpose and a source of instant gratification.

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Hilary Corna

CEO | Founder of The Human Way | Bestselling Author | New book #UNprofessional out 9/21 | Host of the UNprofessional podcast | As seen in Forbes, Fortune, WSJ