Micromanagement Can Create Zombie Firefighters [Article]

My latest article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Leadership must keep firefighters thinking instead of turning them into brain-dead followers

By Billy Schmidt
Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Zombies seem to be all the rage these days. Becoming popular with the 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead,” today we find these characters in various books, films, TV shows and video games. Beyond the walking dead, the term “zombie” is also used to describe a person who is unaware of their surroundings—someone unable to think for themselves. They are ambulant but require outside direction.

So what do zombies have to do with leadership in the fire service? The next question should offer a clue. Can micromanagement create firefighting zombies? The answer is yes, and here’s why.

Management Theory
One of the most important functions a fire officer has is management. I read an article a few years ago that described this important function as X = -Y (see graph). X represents the level of firefighter brain use, ranging from “brainless zombie firefighters” to “thinking responsible firefighters.” And Y represents the degree of management provided by the fire officer, varying from “allowing full autonomy” to “micromanaging every detail.” So the obvious point here (unless you too are a zombie) is that the more you micromanage your firefighters, the less they will use their brains, making it more likely that they will become “zombies.”

Ask any fire officer which they prefer: thinking firefighters or mindless zombies who respond only as directed? The answers would most likely be, “I want smart firefighters who can think and adapt to any situation, firefighters with initiative who perform safely and effectively without detailed direction.” Then ask those same fire officers what their management style is, and none of them will admit that they’re micromanagers.

Now, ask any firefighter which they prefer: an officer who empowers them through trust and responsibility, or a control freak who second-guesses everything they do? Again, the most likely answer will be, “I want an officer who believes in me and helps me grow.” Then ask those firefighters what they really think about micromanagers.

Micromanagement Symptoms
Do you work for a micromanager? Are you a micromanager? What causes someone to act this way? Most micromanagers are driven by one, or all, of the following issues:

  1. Micromanagers are insecure.A lack of personal confidence can be devastating to a fire officer. Under the stressful and strenuous conditions of the fireground, firefighters demand that their officers be competent. No amount of “badge authority” is likely to command respect or obedience in complex and dangerous situations where lives are at risk.
  2. Micromanagers cannot handle workplace instability or pressures.Again, insecure officers quickly fall prey to the stress and pressure to meet the daily performance demands of their firefighters, including training, responding to calls and just plain getting along with each other.
  3. Micromanagers think they can do it better.These fire officers believe that no one can do it better than them. They have to make every decision, take a lead role in every task and, in some cases, dictate every step a firefighter takes.
  4. Micromanagers don’t trust anyone.This fire officer has studied and practices Douglas McGregor’s Theory X that assumes that all firefighters are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever they can. They believe that they have to keep a close eye on their firefighters because they can’t be trusted.

Micromanagement Cures
So, does that sound like you? Or, does it sound like the person you work for? If it does, here are some things you can do to change that.

If you are a micromanager:

  • Admit it! Then start to deal with the micromanaging forces that drive you to control everything.
  • Strengthen your confidence by becoming more competent. High-risk situations demand competent officers.
  • Believe in your firefighters and trust them. Build relationships by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work with them.
  • Invest in your firefighters’ training and help them learn to make the decisions or do the tasks that need to get done.
  • Stop treating your firefighters like zombies, because if that’s how you treat them, that’s what you’ll get. Take some risks and give them a chance to prove what they can do. Help them grow.

If you work for a micromanager:

  • Learn to speak up. Help your officer delegate more effectively by prompting them to give you all of their expectations up front.
  • Make sure to communicate with your officer regularly. This will discourage their need to constantly come to you for details.
  • Remember, your officer is human and changing micromanaging habits is difficult. Help them.

Final Thought
Anyone who has been in the fire service for any length of time has been exposed to some form of micromanagement. Micromanaging is immediately recognized by firefighters. Officers who micromanage inhibit firefighter development, restrict organizational growth and turn firefighters into zombies.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating and doing is one of the many challenges for fire officers today. The goal is not to create mindless zombie firefighters, but to grow adaptable, thinking leaders. The message is simple: Don’t be afraid to manage, but know how, when and where to do it.

Related sources:
Gallo, A. (September 22, 2011). Stop Being Micromanaged. InHarvard Business Review. Retrieved November 2012, from http://hbr.org.

Murnighan, J. (August 25, 2012). Micro managers: Learn to trust your people. In CNN Opinion. Retrieved November 2012, from http://www.cnn.com.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Are you a recovering micromanager? How did you recover? Have you worked for a micromanager? How did you handle it?