After I passed the guidon off to my replacement and moved to California for grad school, I was sad to leave the organization I led for 15 months and the relationships that I forged, but I was relieved to be done. My responsibilities were abdicated, the rat race was complete, and I was off to a new adventure in the Golden State. I now have more time with my family, an amazingly flexible schedule, and the rare chance to expand my educational horizons.
Then it hit me. I miss the action.
I miss the time spent taking care of business, planning training, executing tasks, working with fellow soldiers, and basically staying busy all of the time. I had an Outlook calendar full of events and just had to look at my unit training calendar or the battalion’s long range calendar to know what to expect for the rest of the quarter and those in the future.
And the calendars were full, but never mind that. There were plenty of unscheduled tasks to keep me (and everyone else) gainfully employed because of what many call “fires.”
For the uninitiated, a fire is a problem that, as you can guess, needs to be “put out.” They are usually challenges that crop up outside of the normal battle rhythm or planned events that must be resolved before flaring up, spreading, and drawing the ire of higher-ups.
“If nothing’s on fire, here’s a lighter.”
The problem is that an organization can extinguish fires as they crop up, or they can jump from fire to fire with an unhealthy intent, creating fires where they need not be. In my short career, there have been frequent periods when just about every day there was a fire to put out. I found myself joking with peers that, “if nothing’s on fire, here’s a lighter!”- a reflection of the attitude that the organization seemingly always had to have a crisis to handle or we weren’t working hard enough.
What existed was an addiction to action.
I don’t miss that.
The Appeal of Action
Perhaps unintentionally, some organizations find themselves pursuing crises like it’s the primary mission. Maybe an outfit is locked in a constant battle with higher to justify its continued relevance. Maybe an individual is seeking to prove his or her job security. Maybe a leader is looking to create evaluation bullets. Less insidiously (and more to the point of the potential lack of intent), maybe the climate forced upon an organization by outside sources (especially higher headquarters) demands feverish activity irrespective of its nature.
These motives surely seem misguided, but they don’t stand by themselves. Consider the appeal of action. Working in an environment in which there are endless problems to solve on a daily basis has its attractions. For one, such a job occupies your time, attention, and energies in a way that makes you feel productive and maybe even “important.” (You’re always doing something “urgent,” so you must be important, right?)
Staying busy all the time with constant action can also fill you with a sense of accomplishment and occupational fulfillment. (To digress a bit, that short term fulfillment may be the byproduct of our modern instant gratification culture, in which case the scope of the issue is much broader. Perhaps my current lack of a sense of occupational fulfillment is because I’m a victim of (willing participant in?) that culture, and because graduate school is a long game.)
The Effects of an Addiction to Action
Regardless of the reasoning, the effects of an addiction to action on an organization are damaging. The most obvious effect is burnout. I’ve written previously about burnout among sustainers, but everyone in an organization is susceptible to hitting their respective walls when the operational tempo (OPTEMPO) is so bare-knuckled and relentless because it is driven by an insatiable appetite for crisis.
“If everything is a priority, then nothing is.”
An organization addicted to action may also see its workplace devolve into a toxic command climate. Teams seeking every possible kindling to spark up may become overly risk averse (a failing that is a popular point of discussion in national security publications in recent years) as they “handle” anything that could be construed as a problem. Moreover, addiction to action distorts an organization’s definitions of priority and urgency. As the adage goes, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. There are few things more frustrating than being charged to lead an organization with no clear intent from your boss on how to fit into the larger picture.
The resulting toxic climate may also foster hostility among members. If a member of the team isn’t fully invested, frantically looking for the next fire to put out like the rest of the team, he or she is considered lazy or substandard. Those who resist conforming to the action addicted culture tend to be chewed up by it, thus hastening the previously mentioned burnout.
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of an addiction to action, however, is the resonance of that culture – the passing on of the addiction to a new generation of leaders. If a young junior leader is raised in an organization addicted to action as described, he or she may come to expect that behavior as the norm, thereby taking it with them to future assignments and perpetuating the problem.
Where’s the Line?
There is a fine line that I have not drawn to this point. That line separates addiction to action from an organization that is simply maximizing its efforts, perhaps executing with great success in the “performing” phase of Tuckman’s stages of group development. I can’t with great confidence definitively draw that line, but there are some characteristics that stand out.
The clearest delineation is that, in an organization addicted to action, members work for work’s sake rather than to accomplish a defined objective. Does a task exist to support the mission or improve the organization, or did the Good Idea Fairy descend from on high?
To revisit the above point about “those who resist conforming,” nearly identical behavior can be observed in a successful, high performing organization when a member of the team simply resists conforming to the demanding standards of that organization for whatever reason. For instance, my time at Fort Campbell, KY saw numerous cases in which leaders resisted attending Air Assault School, a cultural no-no at that duty location.
Similarly, a high OPTEMPO by itself is not an indicator of an addiction to action. Many units are extraordinarily busy, even while in garrison (like Military Police just to name one example of many), which can still drive team members to burn out, something for which leaders must diligently keep an eye out.
The point is, there is no black-and-white separation. In fact, I have personally served in organizations in which the transition from “action addicted” to “high-performing” was as simple as a leader stepping in to focus the efforts of the team and reduce obstacles and distractors. Attitude plays a crucial role in making the difference.
What Can Be Done?
First of all, toxic command climates are never acceptable. Leaders must first move to deny such behavior within their own organizations. The problem is frequently higher, however. In those cases, consider formal channels including command climate surveys or the Inspector General (IG).
“Wield a fire extinguisher as needed, but put the lighter away.”
Toxicity aside, addressing an addiction to action necessarily has two sides: what you can directly control and what you can influence indirectly. To address the former, you must first assess yourself and determine if you’re part of the problem. Don’t assign work for work’s sake. Train to the standard, not to time (well, unless the standard is a time). Deliver clear and concise intent to your followers. Lay out understandable and ordered priorities – by ordered, I mean that there is only one #1. Wield a fire extinguisher as needed, but put the lighter away.
If the problem comes from higher, the solution must begin with open and honest communication. Often, a voice of concern from a subordinate is enough to get a leader’s attention. Even more often, a single voice of concern is actually voicing something that many others are worried about as well, and a group of subordinate leaders taking their combined concerns to a leader as a unified front speaks volumes.
Sometimes you cannot convince the powers-that-be to stop setting unnecessary fires. If that’s the case, shape your team from within as best as you can and, as a leader, shield your subordinates to the best of your ability. That doesn’t mean giving them hugs and time off, but it does mean, as Robert I. Sutton writes in “Managing Yourself: The Boss as a Human Shield,” “shielding them from threats” and “absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.”
I’m not currently addicted to action. There were times in the past when I was, and opportunities certainly exist here in grad school for me to busy myself and become addicted to action in new ways now. They aren’t inherent to my “job” as a student, however, and they certainly aren’t mandatory.
For now, I’ll stay down on my proverbial knee.
If you have input, ideas, or suggestions on how to handle “addiction to action,” if you think I got something wrong here, or if you have something to add to the conversation, please feel free to jump in and comment here or on Facebook or Twitter.
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