The Arsonist and Firefighter at Work

Abundance Accountability Personal leadership Respect


The Problem: Too many organizations give out customer service awards, and recognize extraordinary effort that shouldn’t be required in the first place. The “over the top” performance and “heroic” effort of the employee becomes legendary, but too few leaders take an honest inventory to ask why the action taken was really necessary to begin with. Sometimes it’s easier to search for people willing to sacrifice themselves to overcome poor systems or processes, rather than institute fundamental work change. I believe this thinking is unfair, irresponsible and certainly NOT PEOPLE FIRST. Sometimes organizations point to customer service awards as an indication of being a “people first company.” Hah! That’s not always the case. 

A Story: I remember buying a house and applying for a mortgage in 2009 after the financial meltdown. The mortgage application was an arduous process, full of wasteful work for both the customer and broker. Some of the complications fell under the excuse of risk and compliance. Most of it was bologna. The mortgage broker eventually had to drive three hours to meet us near the Canadian border to pick up signed docs and make the closing deadline. I could imagine at the next quarter’s sales meeting, the boss says, “I’d like to give the customer service award to ____, who drove six-hours, round trip in one day to meet his customers, blah blah blah.” In this specific situation, the broker unwittingly became an arsonist to then become the firefighter. What if the company built a process so great, the broker looked like a hero without any pain to the customer (me) and himself? Rather than celebrating going the “extra mile,” perhaps the strategy should be “we design routes to never have to go the extra mile?” Too often, organizations recognize miraculous efforts and want “more people like that,” rather than never (or rarely) putting people in positions to be unnecessarily heroic in the first place.

If you thought this was helpful, here’s what you might do:

  1. Take an honest look at the “extraordinary effort/service” stories and ask why? Are they really heroic? Or does the storyline repeat itself?
  2. Ask what behavior you’re really rewarding to be PEOPLE FIRST? Do you make the process heroic so that the employee looks like a superhero, or do you search for more self-sacrificing people to overcome a lousy, “people last” work design? Be courageous.

Think Big, Start Small and Act Now! (and really be People First)!


One Millennial View: I’ve never known how to really feel about the common phrase, “work smarter, not harder.” To me, it’s always been a gray area. I guess we might assume that this could mean planning to cut corners, or that someone who does make an extraordinary effort is 1. Trying too hard. Or 2. Dumber for trying. And will your preemptively designed “WOW” become the standard, and then appear unimpressive to the customer? I think the answer is, being People First is both “working smarter and harder.” These solutions are clever, and require the hard work of constant adaptation. 

– Garrett

Blog 969

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis

If you want more on this topic, please see this week’s previous blog introducing the People First concept. 

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