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Smoke Kills

August 22, 2009

Pretty early in your firefighting career you learn that smoke kills many more people than fire itself.  Carbon monoxide does most of the damage, depriving the body of oxygen as it binds to red blood cells in place of this vital element.

Long before you succumb to asphyxia, though, the mass of superheated carbon particles, hydrocarbon droplets, noxious oxides and acid gases, and plain old water vapor liberated by most burning materials obscures your vision, irritates your mucous membranes, and obstructs your airways, leaving you lost, confused, and pained as you try in vain to escape even the most familiar settings.

Fire stands in as a popular metaphor for motivation in many organizations.  We speak often about lighting a fire under people.  Leaders are encouraged to stoke the fires of passion and commitment.  People are told to pursue ambitious goals with some fire in their bellies.  More often than not, though, this sort of rhetoric obscures and irritates, killing any desire to change or succeed in its tracks as people choke and gasp for a breath of fresh air and honesty from their leaders.

Most of the firefighters I’ve worked with were pretty self-motivated individuals.  They had strong values and equally strong opinions.  They suffered fools lightly.

Those who lacked motivation usually had it once, but lost it as they sensed a shift in the values of their organizations or teams away from their own.  In most of these cases, it was hard to tell who was right.  Both the organization and the individual had very good reasons for their respective positions.

In a fire, the volume of smoke produced is directly proportional to the size of the fire.  The concentrations of the most dangerous gases in any volume of smoke, however, increases as the size of the compartment and ventilation relative to the size of the fire decrease.  In other words, the fire becomes too big for the space.

It has been my experience that organizations experiencing motivation problems among a significant cadre of their employees are like the fires that produce the most toxic products of combustion: tightly enclosed and often very insular.  The more a leader tries to turn up the heat under such circumstances, the more noxious or even toxic the situation becomes.

If the leader’s values and the organization’s values are truly consistent with the expectations and values of their customers, constituents, or the wider community they serve, the best way to reduce the toxicity and encourage people to renew their sense of purpose and commitment may as simple as opening the doors.  This lets the bad gases out and the good gases in, which in turn increases the burning rate.

If you’re luck, the problem shifts from being one of motivating folks to keeping them under control.  More on that later.

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