False Urgency Dressed Up as a Fire Drill

We’ve all been caught in the delicate crosshairs of a proverbial “fire drill,” that infamous eleventh hour, “drop everything!” request that’s steeped in the urgency of diar consequence. It’s the kind of perpetuated urgency that thunders like an advancing avalanche, consuming all in its impending path, inciting fear and crippling your capacity to act. 

We stand struck in awe, wondering how we didn’t see it coming, questioning what we could have done differently to better prepare or see the signals; all the while groping frenetically for answers, solutions and recovery.


@@Fire drills make everyone feel out of control, and often leave everyone in its path a victim.@@


The level of urgency during a fire drill is directly correlated to the perceived consequences of failure. 

The epicenter of a fire drill is the mounting performance pressure to produce something of perceived importance and to satiate the urgent directives of senior leaders who want immediate answers. Urgency is well known to produce results, however, when urgency becomes fear, the opposite occurs. 

Fire drills are perfect storms that help people closest to the top prove their worth and showcase how quickly they can get things done, even if it means putting the rest of the team at risk. In reality, however, fire drills can demonstrate a leader’s poor time management, relationship with fear, and lack of information about how their team operates. 

If you’re constantly walking the tightrope of a crisis, you can be certain that numerous well-intentioned initiatives are falling through the cracks, contributing to distrust, poor engagement, and complacency to react. When excessive urgency becomes business as usual, employees are more likely to stress out, burn out, and opt out, all of which lead to disastrous employee engagement and crumbling company cultures. Now that’s something truly worth panicking about,.

Distinguishing the difference between a fire drill and a four-alarm blaze begins with diffusing perceived immediate threats and proactively planning for anticipated scenarios, risks, and adverse reactions. 

A drill is just that: a practice run in advance of the real event.

It’s a well intentioned exercise you design to increase the probability of optimal performance and outcomes as a result of testing data, systems, or environments of utmost significance to your business. The benefits of conducting routine drills are many; they align teams and key stakeholders around shared goals, accountabilities, and purpose. Drills should be energizing, renewing focus on the criticality of operating practices, processes, and procedures, while highlighting key decision roles and responsibilities as well as illuminating areas of vulnerability. 

After the urgency has passed, drills should include a critical post-mortem debrief phase. That collective review of what went well, what didn’t, and what modifications need to be made. Doing so readies your team and organization the greatest probability of success when called upon at a moment’s notice, and when it’s no longer a practice run.

Let’s call it what it is. If it’s not a fire drill, it’s a fire.

Whether you’ve dropped the ball, over-promised and under-delivered, have an insatiable curiosity for scenario planning, or are reacting to someone else’s wild request, if you haven’t planned for it and you don’t know how to effectively move forward, it isn’t just a drill.

Where drills are are planned for, well communicated, and executed according to a plan, fires are not. Fires are erratic, flaring-up and jumping course, having a tendency to blindside and engulf whole populations while seemingly suspending others on the perimeters. If you’re lucky, they’re extinguished quickly. Too often, they are not. 

Here’s some advice that can be your oxygen mask the next time you’re asked to run into the flames: 

Triage the situation before jumping in headfirst. 

Understanding where the urgency is coming from can help prevent success-limiting panic. Go beneath the surface level to determine what’s driving the request in the first place, what’s needed, by whom and when, why now, and what’s at stake. Likewise, try to get a sense of your boss’s frame of mind and sense of urgency. Is their stop, drop, and deliver routine an emotional response to an internal or perceived fear? 

Before you drop everything, step back to acknowledge what you boss’s role is, the concerns they may have, and their level of confidence in the organization’s ability to respond. If they’ve not paused themselves to triage and negotiate they could be caught up in the rapidly rising tides of their own performance stress. Were they themselves caught off guard, hijacked by the request and left scrambling to deliver? Perhaps they weren’t proactive to communicate early indicators for action that might have mitigated the urgency. 

Any number of scenarios are possible and pointless, and you might never glean such insights. You’re sitting in the hot seat, period. Next time you’re faced with an urgent request, stop to inquire and appreciate why it matters, determine who is involved, and what the consequences are. Identify key stakeholders and contributors, rough out a skeleton strategy, a communication plan, and assemble a core team. 

Triaging the situation will help you get in front of the urgency, so you can assess the situation before you obsess about the consequences of not coming through.

Guide your boss off the urgency ledge.

An urgent request can become a courageous conversation when you meet your boss where they are. First and foremost, it’s important to convey your commitment. By demonstrating your understanding of the request, fleshing out the details of what can be achieved by when, and what cannot, you have a greater opportunity to help them realize that ‘urgent’ doesn’t always mean ‘immediate’.

In actuality, there may be multiple phases of delivery that result in a more comprehensive approach with far greater outcomes. There are multiple ways you can convey your commitment without acquiescing to unvetted “emergencies” and burning the midnight oil. By declaring your personal commitment, formulating a win-win strategy, and inspiring a solution-first mindset, you’re positioning everyone to win the long-game instead of reacting at the drop of a hat.

Prioritize to keep panic at bay.

When you make it a priority to know your business–your people, products, and performance–you have a better account of the moving parts at any given moment, allowing you to continually scan the horizon and to prepare for what lies ahead. Fears are allayed and urgency dissolves when you’ve got your fingers on the pulse of the organization, you nurture your sphere of influence, engage regularly in purposeful conversations, and connect with your team.


@@The best antidote to panic is prioritization.@@


Constantly feeling like you’re on the chopping block is never an ideal place to be, but it can be the ideal situation to learn about how you react to pressure that others put on your shoulders. By processing urgent requests with compassion for others’ fears and comprehension of the consequences at hand, you get to exercise your power to see what’s possible over threats that are simply perceived. 

How have you traditionally dealt with fire drills in the workplace? Oftentimes the drills are worse than the actual fire—this knowledge is power.

Next time you’re faced with an urgent drill, pause to consider the distinction and what actions you can take to extinguish it. 

When was the last time you found yourself feeling the heat from a fire drill? Knowing how to diffuse it, what will you do differently next time? Share your plan of attack in the comments below!