A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 23rd, 2013 by William

The Chicken Little Syndrome

Do you work for a Chicken Little? These are the “sky is falling” sort of leaders who always has some pet problem that they consider to be the top priority for everyone to address? In your organization is there always some fire that’s front and center and must be fought taking precedence over everything else you’re doing? This is a real problem in many organizations. It’s a product of the insecure, narcissistic, egomaniacal, type leader that knows no other way to manage than through constant turmoil. In fact they even thrive on the disruption and angst it causes the organization. This behavior is a part of the typical command and control mentality that drives modern business management.

Leaders like this will demand that their sycophantic minions jump to attention and respond to his crisis du jour; and unfortunately they typically have no choice but to salute smartly and go into fire-fighting mode. And in true “__it runs downhill” fashion, what eventually happens is that the sycophants force their own direct reports into the same witch hunt, and so on down the organizational hierarchy. Before long you have the “student body left” syndrome where everyone is off chasing the latest problem at the expense of doing their regular jobs. When the organization’s top leader’s behavior gets reflected down through the organization like this, everyone spends their time just jumping from one fire to another.

This sociopathic behavior is called “pyromania” and I believe this is one of the worst behaviors that someone in a management position can practice.

In his March 2007 article, “Are You a Pyromaniac?” Michael Watkins explains, “These are the organizational pyromaniacs; leaders with impulse-control issues who start the fires that waste so much precious time and energy in their organizations. For them, every day is a new crisis to be managed; and they want you to come along for the ride. All it takes is for a few key management people behaving this way and it will drive everyone lower down in the organization into a constant state of hyperactivity. For some, it satisfies a deep need to feel powerful and important. Others find that injecting anxiety in subordinates lessens their own. Some pyros are just suspicious that everyone is slacking off behind their backs. Creating a [fire] can be very satisfying for those who don’t trust employees to put in an honest day’s work.”

I think one reason pyromaniac management may be so prevalent in today’s workplace is because of the sociopath’s need to judge everyone constantly. They use the daily weenie roast as a way to thin out the herd, get rid of those they find weak. Remember the “Selfish Herd Theory” that I covered in a previous blog-post. Pyromania becomes the screening process for the sociopaths to identify the targets they’ll use when they need a fall guy. Anyone who can’t be jerked around by their idiocy becomes useless to them, as is anyone who doesn’t measure up to their standard of commitment to their cause. In other words the more captivated you become with fighting the boss’s latest crisis, the better off you are in his eyes.

They see themselves as the savior of the organization and without them problems that they think threaten their existence would go un-fixed if not for their diligence.

This behavior makes your daily routine anything but sane and manageable. You can’t plan your day in advance−so much for proactiveness. Every day becomes chaotic and unpredictable. The irony is that, come review time, one of the soft skills you’ll be measured on is “effective time management.”

Over time, an environment mired down in fire-fighting turns dysfunctional fast. The sane and talented workers depart, leaving an entourage of sycophants who actually enjoy the false urgency of the daily fire drills. It’s their chance to shine in the eyes of the sociopaths over which they fawn.

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I delve more into the phenomenon of the pyromaniac and the methods used by this ilk to wreak havoc on their organizations, however the most common tool used by today’s pyro is simply his computer.

Today, everyone’s exposed to the electronic age and the availability of e-mail as a way to speed-up communication. But is it also has its dark side because it becomes the favored method for a pyro to ensnare people into chasing his latest catastrophe. Using e-mail this way is actually called cyber-bullying and bullying is exactly how to describe this behavior. For the pyromaniac their favorite incendiary devices are BlackBerrys and their smart-phone cousins.

The problem with e-mail is that it implies that any message received must be “hot” and must be addressed immediately. This then becomes an immediate distraction for the recipient deferring them from what may be more important. It’s the same with the telephone–ever notice when you’re being waited on at a store and the phone rings and the employee will place you on hold while they service the person on the phone? That’s the same mechanism at play with e-mail.

As Watkins explains, “Thumb-based communication tends to magnify the firefighting problem because the typical message is short, so the recipient lacks the context necessary to interpret its true urgency and feels it’s safest to respond right away; it interrupts the receiver in the midst of whatever she’s doing, so she might as well respond; and is often beamed out to multiple people, and so generates a flurry of back-and-forth requests for elaboration and action.” If the recipient is a manager he or she then has to set his or her staff into crises mode in absentia. Let the games begin.

Is your boss a Chicken Little? Here’s how you can tell:

  • Does your boss demand immediate responses to his requests for information from you? Are you never given enough time to do a thorough job?
  • Is your organization mired down in The Action Item Syndrome?
  • Will your boss go over your head to your direct reports when he feels he needs information? This happens whether you’re absent or not.
  • The instant you go on business travel or go on vacation, do you receive the hand-grenade e-mail message asking why something happened in your absence or bringing to light some fire du jour that needs your immediate attention?
  • Do most of your email messages from your boss have the “important” flag checked?
  • Does normal e-mail correspondence in your organization typically have numerous people cc’d? This is a defense mechanism used by people so as to “spread the blame” when the stuff hits the fan.
  • Does your boss use the term “sense of urgency” and measure people’s performance using this vague yardstick?
  • Is the term “accountability’ bandied about as a vague threat to hold everyone in fear of being blamed for things that have gone wrong?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any these questions, then you are working for a boss who’s leaning toward pyromania and you’d better always have a fire extinguisher nearby.

The real problem with this behavior is that fire-fighting is only a short-term fixing of symptoms, and is used in lieu of taking the time to fully understand and address the root cause of a problem. Also, “urgent” very seldom means “important.”

The pyromaniac, in his sense of urgency style, allows little time for the organization to seek out and correct the root cause of problems, even when they’re real. In this way real change never really takes hold and the organization doesn’t grow. In my experience only a handful of the problems, elevated to crisis mode by the pyromaniac, really are a risk to the survival to the organization.

Unfortunately pyromania isn’t limited to the executive suite. Pyromaniacs reside in all levels in an organization. Some even create crises only to solve them themselves. These are the organization’s knights in shining armor–the heroes who are always saving the day.


2 Responses to “The Chicken Little Syndrome”
  1. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I need to spend a while finding out much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I used to be looking for this information for my mission.

  2. Nathan Dampier says

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this post and also the rest of the site is very good.

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