The Fire Pit Effect

Your friends are having an outdoor party in December. It’s cold, so you stand as close to their fire pit as possible, rubbing your hands together for warmth. When the wind switches direction and the smoke gets in your face, you switch sides, still seeking the heat. But eventually, you leave because it’s too cold.

If you aren’t already thinking about what your team’s 2017 goals are and brainstorming objectives with them, you’re getting ready to enter what I call the “fire pit effect.”

Think about it.

Without goals, employees are left out in the cold, trying to figure out how to stay warm (aka: What is the meaning of my work? What does success look like? How are you measuring my performance?). They get as close to the fire as they can (your expectations), try to figure out how to stay warm on their own, change direction when they think it’s time, and then eventually give up. That giving up can look like leaving the company, or worse, decreased engagement and loss of motivation.

It’s the fire pit effect and I see it all the time. It sounds like:

“This new project is confusing and no one understands their role in it or how it’s supposed to make the company money. We’re all working late trying to get it figured out, but none of us knows what to do.”

“We dropped the ball in communicating this change because no one anticipated it coming. Get the group together for an emergency meeting.”

“We didn’t make revenue for last quarter. Stop everything you’re working on and only focus on making money next quarter.”

When there are not clear goals, the team is overworked because they’re unable to prioritize. The boss is reactive and throws more work on everyone’s plates, always at the last minute. Employees don’t understand how they fit in to the company strategy, and since leaders don’t understand what other departments are working on, work happens in silos.

What does success look like?

No one knows. So employees keep asking and searching and trying to warm their hands by seeking direction from a boss that hasn’t set goals and therefore can’t clearly articulate the path. Then eventually, they stop asking and just do what they think is best, with or without telling anyone. Then, they leave.