Let’s start with people who ignite real fires, either for good or for harm. In the latter case, these fires lead to destruction, chaos, loss and disruption. In fact, the arsonist typically has an agenda and seeks to destroy or bring attention to himself.
Note also that the ground conditions or materials would typically be flammable, hence easy to set alight. Two aspects are at play – the individual and the environment.
Firestarters who exist in the workplace are called batu api in Malay. These are individuals or groups of people who enjoy starting rumours or spreading misinformation with the intention of harming the reputation of individuals or the company. The end goal is usually to create chaos and unhappiness for their own gain.
There could be several reasons why firestarters do what they do. Some do it out of rivalry and jealousy. Others do it to impair the reputation of others, to advance their own careers, to cover failures and to score points.
The end result is a weakened team because people become suspicious of each other, resulting in a disarrayed and misaligned organisation in achieving its goals.
So how do we deal with workplace firestarters and the damage they cause?
Like real fires, focus on two aspects:
- manage the firestarter (individual).
- make the workplace “fire resistant” (environment).
Here are five practical steps.
Step 1: Establish and live core values
Core values are a set of behavioural guidelines that are established and promoted to everyone in the workplace. Core values are a contract of sorts, binding everyone from management to employees to behave in an agreed way.
Core values can include the following ideals: Service, Trust and Respect. Taking Service as an example, everyone agrees to provide service and support their peers willingly. Everyone agrees to Trust each other when dealing with work and information. Everyone agrees to Respect each other’s opinions and beliefs.
When management walks the talk and demonstrates these core values, trust will grow and transparency will prevail, making it difficult for anyone to spark any ‘fire’.
Step 2: Build trust
A solid sense of trust between management and employees themselves mitigates the “credibility” of rumours and misinformation. We want to get to a point where the employee’s first response is: “It can’t be true” or “Let’s verify it first”.
Step 3: Transparency
A transparent workplace means management is easily accessible to employees (e.g. an open door policy) and they make an effort to keep employees fully informed of developments within the workplace.
For example, management could issue bulletins or internal communications regularly to keep employees informed of company developments. This connection in the workplace will help to prevent rumours and misinformation from festering in the workplace. Employees also know that management is available at any time to clarify issues.
Step 4: Keep your eyes and ears open
Watch out for signs of dissatisfaction, either through changes in employees’ behaviour or through signals picked up through casual conversations. Engaging potential issues early gives you the opportunity to nip issues in the bud or tackle fires while they are still small.
Step 5: Neutralise the firestarter!
Firestarters are either those who enjoy creating troubles (I describe them as “arsonists”) or those who are unhappy and seek attention to their situations.
Identify the firestarters first, then try engage and coach them to channel their energy to achieve greater and more meaningful goals for themselves and for the organisation.
Who knows? Management may be able to help resolve some issues among those who are unhappy at the workplace.
At the end of the day, dealing with firestarters is best done by ensuring that the workplace environment is fire resistant and that employees are actively engaged.